Eric Alterman | The Nation

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

The Altercation Gift-Giving Guide, Part I

I’ve got a new “Think Again” column called Good Journalism is not “free” and Somebody’s Got to Pay for It,”and that’s here


I had a big music weekend. Saturday and Sunday night I caught the last Phil and Bob (“Further”) shows at the Garden, and Monday night I got to go to the benefit, “One For Woody,” organized by Warren Haynes at Roseland, and featuring the North Mississippi All-Stars, Government Mule and the mighty Allman Brothers Band. The show was a tribute to the late bassist Allen Woody who, like Haynes, played in both the Mule and the ABB, and I guess had a lot of friends. It was a real family night, however, Woody’s daughter, Savannah, sang “Soulshine,” with Government Mule, and Berry Oakley Jr. played with the boys. (Dangerous job, ABB bass player. Kinda like playing keyboards for the Dead, alas.) I caught the second half of the Mule’s set—I never saw them before and they were pretty damn good. They did a terrific “Stay with Me” with Rich Robinson & Artemis Pyle, and the Allmans, when they finally came on, had more guests than I could count, much less identify.  They did Who’s Been Talking (w/Hook Herrera), One Way Out (w/Rich Robinson & Berry Oakley Jr), Statesboro Blues (w/Berry Oakley Jr), The Weight (w/Audley Freed & Danny Louis), Franklins Tower (w/Chuck Garvey, Vinnie Amico & James Van de Bogart—though not, as many people expected, Bob and Phil, who after all, were in town the night before), Southbound (w/Hook, Luther, & Cody) the encore was Whipping Post, followed by an interesting Wish You Were Here (Warren w/ Berry Oakley jr., Gordie Johnson, Danny Louis & Matt Abts) at the end. (Funnily, the second to last song played by Furthur was “Time,” so everybody’s dipping into the Pink Floyd catalogue. Anyway, I walked in the back door with Greg, and he looked just fine with his new liver. (Unlike Phil, Greg does not make a public service announcement on behalf of organ donors—one that actually got me to do it.) And the band was great.  They always are. The Allmans are the most dependable thing in life after Bruce. But it had a real nice extra vibe going owing to this Woody thing, and Haynes and Derek in particular, were on fire.  (Oh, and your correspondent accepts your gratitude for staying up late enough to write about a show where the band in question did not come on until midnight—on a school night.) 

The Altercation gift-Buying Guide, Part I

40: A Doonesbury Retrospective (Andrews McMeel Publishing). This is the perfect gift for anyone who is half-decent in any way. How could anybody not want it? The list price is $100, but you can find it cheaper. It’s worth a hundred bucks, easily. With forty years worth of strips, the organizational issues had to be challenging ones. They’ve divided it by character, which strikes me as correct, because that is at the fulcrum of one’s emotional attachment to Trudeau, and the primary narrative thread though which Mr. Trudeau has become perhaps our nation’s most important real-time historian; playing a role in sanity-saving not unlike Jon Stewart but not only before his time, but for four straight decades. (There is a four page foldout map of–“ the mind-boggling matrix of relationships” that have evolved over the years.) If you were a kid like me, back in the seventies, Woody Allen and Doonesbury were all you had to keep you sane, particularly in the years the Mets sucked (and before Bruce broke). This book is big in every way. It’s so big, it’s hard to hold. That might be a problem for some, though some of us can use it for weight-training.  Seriously, I could spend a lot of time singing Mr. Trudeau’s praises. But Garry Wills has done a better job of it than I could, here. I also like Gerry’s idea that a ”great modern American history course could be taught using this volume of collected strips, stretching from Watergate to Afghanistan.” I might just do it. I’ve even made a few calls on it already. Overall, this is one of the great intellectual/artistic accomplishments of the past half-century, irrespective of category. Do I really need to keep going here? Sorry, I need to get paid for that. Anyway, Amazon has it incredibly cheap, with plenty more info, here.

Another fine gift for a lot of people, though I suppose not everybody, is the new, second edition of The Encyclopedia of New York City (Yale University Press). Again, at just under 1600 oversized pages, it’s kind of hard to lift. And it’s only been fifteen years since the first one. (The Dodgers are still gone, apparently.) This version has 800 entries the old one didn’t, including a bunch, alas, that relate to September 11, 2001. Editor Kenneth T. Jackson, the Jacques Barzun Professor of History at Columbia University, knows a great deal about the city. (His “Crabgrass Frontier” is a classic.) He is kind of dry, I gotta say.  Still, it’s invaluable.  More, here.

Will Frierwald, A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers [Pantheon]. To like this big fat (832 page) book, you gotta like Will Frierwald.  In a direct contrast to Mr. Jackson above, Frierwald is opinionated, and on occasion, outrageous all the time. He is incredibly knowledgeable and engaging even when—particularly when—he makes you want to argue with him. What’s nice about the book is its exclusive focus on the music of the musicians, rather than their personal lives, which are almost always messy and sometimes interesting, but inevitably detract from the music. This book reminds me of David Thompson’s film encyclopedias, which are sometimes nutty but always worth reading. Some of the Amazon reviewers have interesting arguments with the author here.

Jim Derogatis and Greg Kot, The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock 'n' Roll Rivalry (Voyageur Press). This book is kinda fun, because of the photos, paraphernalia the two authors collected. It’s undermined, however, by their need to pretend that the Stones were ever anywhere near as great as the Beatles. They were great, but not that great.

Herman Leonard, Jazz (Bloomsbury). The first photograph vintage I ever bought was the back of Frank Sinatra in Monte Carlo (1959) Herman Leonard, and if you ask me whether I believe God exists, I would point you to his “shaft of light” photograph of Duke Ellington, which sits above the desk in my office.  I bought a portfolio a few years later and a bunch of them are up around the house anchoring the collection. So I can’t strongly recommend Jazz, the late Mr. Leonard’s collection, just out from Bloomsbury. Leonard was born in Allentown, moved to the big city in 1948 and opened his first studio in Greenwich Village, where he worked for Life, Esquire and Playboy while recording the jazz scene. In 1989, Leonard settled in New Orleans, living there until Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home, studio and print collection in 2005. (There’s a documentary called “Saving New Orleans” about him, which you can see on Sundance this week.) Alas, the gentleman just died, and probably never got to see this book. He did, however, get the the Grammy Foundation's first grant award to a photographer.  Nice book too. Here

There’s a new seventeenth edition of the Oxford Atlas of the World that according to its press material, is

the only world atlas updated annually, guaranteeing that users will find the most current geographic information. Oxford's Atlas of the World is the most authoritative atlas on the market. Full of crisp, clear cartography of urban areas and virtually uninhabited landscapes around the globe, the Atlas is filled with maps of cities and regions at carefully selected scales that give a striking view of the Earth's surface. Opening with world statistics and a colorful, instructive 48-page Introduction to World Geography—beautifully illustrated with tables and graphs—this acclaimed resource provides details on numerous topics of geographic significance, such as climate change, biodiversity, energy, and landforms.

It’s great and useful to have, but more fun and interesting for me (and cheaper) is Oxford’s Atlas of World History with 450 maps and 160 illustrations, and is divided into sections on ancient, medieval, early modern, Enlightenment and 20th century history, with easy-to-read two-page entries covering such subjects as "Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire, 100-500" and "The Development of Australia and New Zealand Since 1790." The section on postwar life includes charts showing migration patterns, female enfranchisement, distribution of wealth across the globe and changes in the environment.”   The World Atlas is here and the World History Atlas is here.

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 (University of California Press) Goodness gracious, this is another character-building exercise. It’s 1,760 pages, and again, big. It’s been an amazing best-seller, which is interesting because the main selling point of this edition is the impressive scholarly apparatus that it comes with, since much of the “autobiography” has been available for quite a while now. This is the first of three proposed volumes. And the autobiography takes up only a small portion. The rest is history, context and scholarly musings on what appears. It’s an impressive package but will not be to everyone’s taste, though Mark Twain certainly ought to be.  More here

(More TK next week)

The mail

Jim Peale
Swanzey, NH

About three years ago, I encountered a lot of objections at the annual Christmas Dinner Family Political Free-For-All by expressing the belief that we'd see a black man as President before we saw a woman in that office.  I based this on my belief that misogyny (or at least discomfort with strong women) ran a lot deeper in American society than did racism.  The treatment of Nancy Pelosi, both as a punching bag for Republican know-nothings during the recent campaigns and as a foil for uninformed boobs after (see Broder, David) just enforces my belief in the underpinnings of my argument.

Bill Dunlap
Lake Oswego, Oregon

 When you get the '78 Houston concert, it will give you a three-hour smile. It was the first thing I put on. The sound seemed a little flat at first, but when I blasted it through my aging Ohm I (Eye) speakers (made in Brooklyn) it was great. A personal treat was a photo of Bruce on the same motorcycle I used to ride, a 500cc on/off road Triumph, although mine was a few years older. I complained earlier about having to buy Darkness a fourth time, but now—no problem.

Eric replies: Got it. It’s insanely great, though there’s a magic in the Phoenix night that transcends Houston, albeit ever-so-slightly.

Editor's Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

It Was 32 Years Ago Today...

 My new “Think Again” column is called “When Money Talks, Who Listens (besides politicians)?” and it’s here.

And my new Nation column is called "Obama's Failures ... and Ours" that's here.

Also, Happy Birthday Tom Terrific!  Brightest star of my pre-Springsteen childhood and adolescence.

"The Promise" ("The Darkness" Box)

As I’m sure you know it’s here. The only question I have is whether it’s the single greatest thing ever or only the single greatest thing you can buy right now. Anyway, what is there to say. I’d grown tired of “Darkness” a long time ago, but the 21 new songs—and new versions of old songs—are fresh and new and make you fall in love with pop music all over again, even if like me, you already were. The guys at Backstreets like the remix of Darkness but I’ve not listened to it. Neither have I watched the Houston ’78 show because they sent me two of the other disc and I’m waiting for the switch. But the Bluray of the outtakes from the '76 recording session and the '78 Phoenix show is to remember what it’s like—actually just about to feel like—what it is to be young again.  Ditto the documentary, which has performances not included anywhere, and a beautiful picture of how a genuinely benevolent dictatorship operates. And the contemporary performance of Darkness is really kind of scary. It’s that good.  I plan to have lots of people chime in about the release in the next few weeks and I will have more to say once I get the bluray of Houston. But what a gift. Oh and I almost forgot the notebooks. Goodness gracious, Bruce has really come through for the fanatical base and in a way that until recently, he purposely avoided. You can read all about what’s contained in the release here, and watch a few videos too.

The documentary, “My So-Called Enemy,” directed by Lisa Gossels, got terrific word of mouth at the Hamptons International Film Festival last month, and so I asked my young friend, seminary student (and daughter’s Bat-Mizvah tutor), Rachel Druck, to watch it with us and write up her thoughts. They appear below:

Rachel Druck on “My So-Called Enemy”

In the summer of 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada, I was staying with relatives in a suburb of Jerusalem. Over the course of the weekend, as I bonded with the family, I became a particular favorite of a ten-year-old cousin who enjoyed bragging to me about his fearlessness. The crack in his bravado came as I prepared to leave, when he took me aside and admitted that he was, in fact, scared of one thing: Arabs. It was a heartbreaking moment, not only because it was a testament to having lived through months of intense fear, but also because of what it said about the ways in which the next generation was already relating to those on the other side of the conflict. An Arab village was close enough that the morning call to prayer would wake me up every morning that I stayed with the family. Yet the extent to which my young cousin interacted with its inhabitants rendered them as replacements for the monsters who were hiding under his bed only a few years earlier.

That same summer a group of twenty-two Israeli and Palestinian girls were heading for New Jersey to participate in a leadership program for women, “Building Bridges for Peace.” Leaving aside the program’s rather awkward name and eyeroll-inducing activities, (including actual miniature bridge-building), its purpose is deceptively straightforward: bringing together young women from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and forcing them to interact with one another. In the process, these young women are compelled to confront the difficult feelings that each harbors towards the other participants and the sides of the conflict they represent. "My So-Called Enemy" follows six of the program’s participants, Jewish Israelis, Christian Palestinians and Muslim Palestinians, through the summer and throughout the six tumultuous years that follow. The film compellingly captures the toll of living in a state of perpetual conflict, and the powerfully contradictory feelings that arise in the process of establishing friendships while being a forced participant in a larger conflict.

Watching this evocative documentary was both a deeply moving, and deeply uncomfortable, experience. I am the same age as the women portrayed in the film, and relatively frequent trips to Israel meant that I was often in the country when many of the events that took place over the course of filming occurred. I was frantically phoning Israeli friends and relatives after the bombing at Hebrew University that threw the fragile bonds within the program into chaos, and sat in that very café three years later during the disengagement from Gaza, another event covered in the documentary. And like these young women, I have grown up with my own narrative of the conflict in the Middle East, and whether by choice or circumstance, have had little opportunity to have that narrative questioned. Moments such as the one where a Palestinian woman admits to admiring suicide bombers, and insists that her Israeli interviewer and her family would be fine if they moved to Iran confirmed my worst fears about what I would hear if I opened myself up enough to engage in uncensored dialogue. And yet being forced to listen to a wide range of opinions, and "My So-Called Enemy" forced me, along with these young women, to understand the limits of the narrative I have come of age with, and to honestly confront the face of the other.

One of the most admirable features of the film is that no side is allowed to “win,” and the stories that are told are not neatly resolved. The Israelis are still drafted into the IDF, the wall between the West Bank and Gaza rises, and the lines of communication between the program participants become increasingly tenuous. Yet while the film reinforces a strong pessimism about the future of peace in the Middle East, it nonetheless reaffirms the strength and resolve of young women as they grow into adult leaders. In a world in which women are urged, above all, to “Be Nice,” and avoid conflict, these women learn to express themselves powerfully and confront each other and their own contradictory, wide-ranging set of feelings. "My So-Called Enemy" ends ultimately with the hope that one day we will live in a world where my cousin can call his friend in the next village, and they can share their fears with each other.

Now here’s Reed:

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Honestly, I don’t know why Nancy Pelosi bothers. After all, she could easily announce her resignation, hand over her safely Democratic seat after a quick special election, and then head off to go make millions writing books and speaking on the rubber chicken circuit. Instead, she has decided to stick around and take a demotion from Speaker to Minority Leader to fight for Democratic principles in a Congress that is shaping up to give Robespierre’s Revolutionary Courts a run for its money in the pantheon of history’s greatest collections of right-wing radicals.

Plus, she wouldn’t have to bother with Beltway pundits like the Washington Post’s David Broder, who are willing to write something like this last July about the ill-timed political exits of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, which concluded thusly:

These are hard calls, and those of us on the outside, who can only imagine the pressures of public office, can show some sympathy for the people who have to wrestle with the conflict between their conscience and their sense of obligation to the administration in which they serve […] McNamara stayed too long and left too quietly. Palin is bailing out on her people far too soon. Neither can serve as an example for those in government wrestling with the decision of when to quit.

Pundits who, this past Wednesday, turn around and, despite the fact that the resoundingly reelected Pelosi is neither hanging around to simply collect a paycheck as an ineffective back-bencher nor jumping ship to cash in on her popularity among like-minded liberals, now write this:

But Speaker Nancy Pelosi lost no time after the returns came in this month in signaling that she would not go gently…. Normally, this would not matter much. But we are about to start a Congress in which everything depends on the willingness of the leadership in both parties to face up to hard choices—on the budget, Afghanistan and a dozen other issues. Too often in the past, Democrats have avoided making hard choices by throwing more money in the pot or taking similar self-indulgent steps. When it came to the stimulus legislation and health-care reform, for example, Democrats spent to buy votes rather than make tough choices. The Democrats' unwillingness to face the hard choice in this internal fight sends exactly the wrong signal.

First off, I think what sends the “wrong signal” is when pundits imply the presence of overweening ambition run amok by using pejorative terms like “lost no time,” when actual reporting says otherwise. But even leaving that aside, according to Broder’s convoluted, damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t logic, Pelosi and Democrats’ demonstrated willingness to compromise over the past two years on the stimulus and healthcare and a dozen other issues—something a suddenly delicate Broder now disparages as “buy[ing] votes”—to actually pass legislation that will help millions of Americans is now somehow proof that they didn’t “mak[e] hard choices.” (Unsurprisingly, he feels no need to mention the Republicans’ consistent and unapologetic refusal to do the same.) Instead, what portends an ominous Democratic intransigence is an internal party decision to keep Pelosi as its leader and add a fourth leadership position to the minority caucus. Honestly, in what parallel universe does this type of transparently thin argument make any sense?

Of course, as justification for his position, Broder explains that there is precedent to be paid attention to here. If a House Speaker presides over a mid-term election where dozens of fellow party members lose their seats, they never stick around as Minority Leader, right? Not exactly:

Although Gingrich and Hastert took themselves out of the leadership equation after electoral losses, history is full of speakers who remained as head of their caucuses through good times and bad. The most familiar example for political buffs may be Texas Democrat Sam Rayburn, the longest-serving House speaker. He held the post three separate times and remained as Democratic minority leader between his speakerships when his party lost its House majority in 1947 and 1953.

But, to be fair, Broder pointed out that “Republicans have established a pattern and precedent of trimming their leadership from top.” Except, of course, when they don’t follow that pattern either:

However, [Republican] Joseph William Martin, Jr. and [Democrat] Sam Rayburn were the two most recent cases of outgoing Speakers seeking the Minority Leader post to retain the House party leadership, as their parties swapped control of the House in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

All this talk of Rayburn, why does that name ring a bell? Oh yeah, I think I remember something I read in Broder's own newspaper:

But under the Capitol dome, Pelosi is a towering figure, perhaps even a historic one. Capped by her central role in passing the landmark health-care bill in March, the California Democrat, 70, has transformed herself from the caricature of a millionaire liberal with impeccable fashion taste into a speaker on par with the revered Sam Rayburn, according to historians, pollsters and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Gee, if Pelosi has been judged such a powerful and effective House leader, I still don’t understand why she didn’t step aside to make way for this Blue Dog Democrat instead. A guy whose consistent undermining of his own party’s agenda rivals his performance during a brief NFL career, which was marked by throwing twice as many interceptions to the opposition as he did touchdown passes to his teammates and was, just this week, judged to be the 42nd Worst Ever in the history of the league.

I mean really, what is Pelosi thinking by staying to fight? Didn’t she learn anything this week? Nowadays, American politicians, when faced with a major electoral defeat, look to the years of hard governing work that lay ahead and the sacrifices to be made upholding their sworn commitment to their constituents and say: No thanks, I have other priorities.

The mail:

Jeremy Ben Ami
(Boston, for today)

Eric —
I just landed in Boston, and I need your help.

I was scheduled to speak tonight at a reform synagogue here, but a small group of right-wing activists intimidated the board into canceling the event.

Outrageous, you say?

Know that this is not an isolated example. All across the country, week in and week out, small numbers of right-wing activists and donors regularly intimidate synagogues Hillels, and other communal institutions out of presenting views on Israel they don't like.

* We've had enough, and I hope you have too. It's time to draw the line and say we simply won't be silenced any more. *

Click here to sign a communal petition saying you will not be silenced by right-wing intimidation over Israel.

We've moved tonight's event to a school down the block, and I hope publicity over the cancellation means we'll get an even larger crowd. And I'd love to tell that crowd that in just a matter of hours—thousands of our supporters and friends signed a petition to say we've had it. We won't be silenced any more.

Will you add your name—and get a few friends to sign with you?  I'll present it tonight and we'll use it every time someone tries to shut the door on open debate about Israel and American policy in the Middle East.

Click here to send a message—we won't be scared into silence on Israel.

There couldn't be a more crucial time for an honest conversation about Israel.  Settlement building has resumed, the U.S. government is trying to broker a deal to stop it again temporarily, and peace hangs in the balance. Most important, so too does the future, security and character of Israel.

*Please act right now.* Our movement is getting big enough that a small minority shouldn't be able to silence our pro-Israel, pro-peace voice any longer.

Let's show our strength with thousands of signatures now in these few hours before tonight's event.

And, together, let's open the doors of our community wide to the vibrant debate on critical issues that we all must hear.
- Jeremy

Steve Nelson
Kent, WA

Lee Roskin from Thailand nailed it!! No, no, not his critique of Alterman.  He nailed his head to the floor.


Mr. Roskin:  Now is apparently the time of all good women to come to the aid of a favorite American voice, namely, Eric Alterman. One is left to wonder who made you the great arbitrator of Jewishness to decry John Stewart and Alterman "just alike."  For one thing, while Eric is very funny, he is NOT as funny as John Stewart.

Perhaps you missed the pages of thoughtful criticism Alterman has offered regarding Obama and his administration, a far distance from the one-line, sweeping generalization style at which you are so adept.  Here a reader will find scholarly, fact-based arguments and a body of work to support it.  I especially recommend When Presidents Lie.  Here, too, a variety of voices and ideas are welcome and interact.  A concern I have is that Alterman does not suffer a fool gladly, so were I you I'd watch out.

Eric Alterman has proved himself a great champion of truth, justice, and the  liberal way.  He is not a typical anything.  You'll have to do better than this to trash him.  You might want try some work at becoming a mensch.

(Please note, Eric, I did not call him an ass-hat, but I wanted to.)

Eric adds: A lot of you have written in to ask about a rather glaring absence in the Altercation lineup. I share your regrets. It is unavoidable and I’m afraid I cannot be any more specific than that, but your letters are appreciated.

 Editor's Note: You can write to Eric Alterman here.

Can't Trust That Day

I've got a new Think Again called "Think Again: Glenn Beck and the Uses of Anti-Semitic Propaganda."

Also, I did this Beast piece about Jews and the midterm elections, "Jews Snub the GOP Again."

Then, this week I did this piece for the Beast, which they called "The Left's Outrage Deficit," and it's about the awful Bowles/Simpson Commission.

(In honor of the arrival of the Darkness box)

These are apparently endless:

LTC Bob and Reed follow, and they are followed by the Alter-reviews and the rest of the mail, below.

Letters from a Semi-Foreign Land
VOL. I, Issue 3.

I am back in the United Kingdom now. The events below occurred on Thursday. Around the 11th Hour, of the 11th Day, of the 11th Month.

11 November 2010
Stavenger, Norway

This is the home of the "Joint Warfighting Center" for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It is the place where higher level NATO headquarters elements come to be trained to fulfill their wartime role. Only rarely, in the past, has this place trained men and women who are actually going to go to war. The fact that the men and women I am with right now will be in a war, just 80 or 90 days from now, is an immediate fact that few can ignore completely.

Today Stavenger is cold and blustery. I do not understand Norway's weather patterns, but it seems that when the wind shifts to the north, or slightly to the east, we freeze. This is not a bad thing, only an observation. Norway in November makes you appreciate the sun. I must say though, that the dawns here are magnificent slow rolling affairs, so there is that slight compensation.

10:00 hrs (Local): The capstone event of this whole exercise is a small briefing being given by a nearly newly minted major. But that major is one of my majors, and what he is briefing is the analysis that he and the planning group I gave him came up with. Their topic: Plan for 2011. You have five days. Go. I have something of a vested interest. Not out of fear for my own career; in general I could give a toss about that, but because I want this young Padawan to do well in his first real test.

In the real world, a few dozen people worked on this effort, and it took them months to complete. But this is training, and so some things are artificially compressed. The young major did well. Guiding his team through the shoals, he helped them drive forward to a conclusion. That sort of thing is a skill which can only be learned by doing, and not all personalities can pull it off. I knew that he could though, or at least I thought that, and therefore took the seeming risk of putting one of the junior officers in my shop in charge of the biggest assignment for the entire exercise, instead of doing it myself or assigning one of the other Lieutenant Colonels who work for me to the task. "It is training," I thought, "if he fails, I can take the bullet, and he will have learned. If he succeeds, I have one more man capable of leading the most challenging tasks, and that man will have the confidence that he needs to do this for real." Training for war is not war. Nobody dies if you make a mistake. But planners at my level are aware that in the real world, when people at our level screw up, tens and hundreds of thousands might pay some price over time.

The audience for his effort this morning, however, is as real as can be. My young major is stepping out in front of, as near as I can tell, about sixteen stars worth of general officers inside that small room, as well as the entire headquarters, which is listening in to the briefing through computer links into that small chamber.

10:20 hrs (Local): The briefing was designed to last 20 minutes. After a seven minute introduction by higher ranking officers, my Major started. (We'll call him MAJ T, for future reference.) Smooth and swift in his delivery, MAJ T demonstrated that he and his team had laid the intellectual groundwork one would expect of a multinational team of professionals. The much-feared voice of rebuke from on-high never appeared, and by ten minutes into the briefing it was clear that the bear was happy, and my Major succeeding. Listening in, from a distance, I was happy for him. To this important general, Major T was now a known commodity, and one that could be relied upon. One cannot overstate the importance of building those sorts of relationships between the men who make the plans, and the men who make the decisions.

10:55 hrs (Local): The five minute warning. The briefing is still going on, although another briefer is now giving his presentation to the general.

11:00 hrs (Local): I am outside. I prefer this moment to come when I am outside. Although what happens next is a British Commonwealth tradition, I have observed it myself for many years. My great-grandfather, you see, was also an infantryman. Once upon a time, July 1916 in fact, he went "over the top" near a river known as the Somme, in France. He was, at that time, a British enlisted man. Within a month he was an officer.

My watch tells me that it is time. I come to the position of attention. Four others in my immediate vicinity see me and do the same, as I am the senior ranking officer in the area. I am facing towards the colors. It is, perhaps, forty degrees and the wind is blowing off the water of the fjord. The sun is hidden behind low hanging clouds and the wind is moderately strong. It is cold. None of this is apparent from the appearance of the five men standing stock still, at attention, remembering and imagining.

11:00:30 hrs (Local): By now all pedestrians in the immediate area have spotted us. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, from fourteen countries, have all stopped, come to attention, and faced the colors. The men standing at attention here in Norway, paying silent respect to a generation passed, are the great-grandsons of men who, around ninety years ago, tried their level best to slaughter each other using every fiber of their beings and the combined industrial might of their respective nations. Twenty years later, they tried again. That time it was my grandfather in the fight. Europe ripped itself apart twice last century, and it did so in ways so vicious that few Americans can even imagine the wreckage today. But that is the past.

The officer standing to my left is French. There are now two officers to my right, both are German. There is a Brit in front of me. There is a Czechoslovakian officer to my right-rear. We are standing together at this instant. The historian in me is acutely aware of the moment.

11:01 hrs (Local): Two cars, travelling on the few roads through the exercise area have come to a stop. One has a military man, the other a civilian. Both pull their cars to the side, exit the vehicle, and do as everyone else is doing. No sound is heard but the rustling left by a gust of wind passing through the fading pines. My eyes are watering. Even now I am not quite sure if this was entirely because I was facing directly into the freezing wind, or because as a historian and a soldier, I have an appreciation for what my great-grandfather, and my grandfather, experienced.

11:02 hrs (Local): I have counted the seconds. One hundred and twenty. Two minutes. I take one step back, and say clearly, "Lest We Forget." Then I get back to work, preparing my men, as best I can, to face another of the wars that have come after the War to End All Wars.

Feel free to write to LTC Bob at R_Bateman_LTC@hotmail.com

Now here's Reed:

Time Served

Other than a love of baseball, I'd guess that Ty Cobb and Keith Olbermann wouldn't have a lot in common. But this past week, the latter joined the former in a somewhat exclusive club—those public figures that have been "indefinitely suspended." As we now know, Olbermann's indefinite suspension from his MSNBC show "Countdown" actually lasted all of two workdays, which, it turns out, was only eight fewer than Cobb's ultimate sentence. But then again, American League President Ban Johnson had indefinitely suspended Cobb in May of 1912 because he had jumped into the bleachers during a game to assault a defenseless, race-baiting heckler who had lost all but two fingers on one hand. Olbermann's transgression, by comparison, is pretty weak tea and seems to have only involved his failure to gain the express written consent of MSNBC President Phil Griffin before making three political donations, since several, similar campaign contributions by other MSNBC commentators, which didn't trigger indefinite suspensions, have quickly came to light.

Of course, this being America, one might easily guess why both of these ominously sounding "indefinite suspensions" ended up being so definitively finite. A subsequent walkout by the rest of Cobb's Detroit Tigers teammates for the first game of his suspension threatened the financial viability of the AL, and Johnson quickly caved to keep his league turnstiles spinning. And though there is no excuse for Cobb's behavior (as was often the case), there was a beneficial side effect to it—the solidarity shown by his teammates strengthened an already existing resolve among them to press for what ultimately became the player's union.

MSNBC's ethical principles look to have succumbed to a similar bottom-line logic, as having their network's top-rated primetime host off the air for more than a few days right after a heated election probably didn't make much business sense. And maybe there's a long-term silver lining to this suspension as well. Already, the incident has reignited debate and occasioned some bracingly healthy discussions about the anachronistic and often draconian nature of these ethics policies from some surprising corners within journalism. I sincerely hope Olbermann himself follows through on his comments from Tuesday night that this is a topic in need of more refined debate, especially since he somewhat inscrutably argued that these policies are "probably not legal," yet at the same time "not stupid." Of course, he's a little late to the party, since some of us have been debating this topic for a while now and it didn't take losing a few days' (very lucrative) pay for us to figure out something's wrong. Now, I certainly don't expect his recent awakening to the problems with these policies to alter the conventional wisdom anytime soon. Nevertheless, at the end of his segment, Olbermann made an additional and important point about the role of transparency in the discussion.

As journalists, we are among the most strident advocates for transparency in politics and make no apologies about doing so. But in the wake of the Citizens United case, journalists can now exploit a gaping loophole in both the law and these ethics policies to actively participate on the "playing fields of politics," as the New York Times puts it, while keeping all these individual biases secret. To win back the public's trust, journalism simply can't continue to stake its authority on a hidebound policy of "what the public doesn't know about us can't hurt them." That's intellectually dishonest and self-defeating. What's more, if you extend that thinking out to its natural conclusion, all individual political activity, including voting, ultimately presents a potential conflict of interest and should therefore be prohibited. And that's a world that, I submit, no media organization or journalist wants to inhabit.

So instead, what's needed are more open, flexible ethics policies, which, actually, would somewhat resemble the policies that NBC News, MSNBC TV and MSNBC.com already have in place. Policies that allow for political advocacy among newsroom employees on a case-by-case basis and according to rather limited, commonsense guidelines, while simultaneously mandating disclosure both inside and outside the news organization, would be fairer to journalists and better inform the audiences they serve. After all, a healthy democracy needs both if it is to survive. Or, as even Ty Cobb once observed, "The crowd makes the ballgame."

One additional thought today, apropos of it being yet another Veterans Day commemorated during wartime. Whatever your political views about the legitimacy of the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it should be a sobering thought that we have now gone a full decade since we last marked a Veterans Day during peacetime. In fact, our nation has now been at war longer than any other period in its history, except for the Vietnam conflict. And we may yet surpass that ignominious record, since we learned just yesterday from the White House that our nation will likely have to endure at least four more Veterans Days before we can say otherwise.

As the son of a veteran and a veteran myself, the fact that, more than nine years after 9/11, the continued combat deaths of American soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen overseas served as little more than inaudible background noise in our recent midterm elections was, to me, a national tragedy. To blithely ask so much of so (relatively) few for so long for so (relatively) little speaks to an alarming obliviousness within our Republic, one that has already proven to have little patience or pecuniary interest in healing the massive number of long-term physical and psychic scars that inevitably accompany said sacrifices. Platitudes about freedom and parades, I'm afraid, are never enough.

However, let me humbly offer one relatively easy way to help honor all of our veterans—past, present, and future—in the here and now. All it takes is a phone call to your respective Senators, particularly if he or she happens to be one of these ten profiles in political equivocation, to tell them you support the long overdue repeal of our military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy. But rather than just take my word for it, or those of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or the Secretary of Defense, or, for that matter, this soon-to-be-released, 370-page Pentagon study, I'll let retired Navy Capt. Thomas Kelley, a veteran who knows firsthand a thing or two about the costs of serving his country, have the last word:

'When I was commanding a ship more than 25 years ago. There was no secret about who was gay... and it didn't matter. What mattered was that they were good sailors, trustworthy and reliable people you could depend upon...

'You hear this nonsense about gays threatening unit cohesion,' Kelley said. ‘The real threat to that kind of cohesion, that sense of family, is when people are forced to acknowledge a lie. You have to be able to trust the soldier precisely for who he or she may be. That's the only way cohesion takes place. It's called integrity.'


The Apple Box, by Sal

As far as boxed sets go, the recently released "Apple Box" is just about perfect. I'll get to the one minor imperfection later.

In 1968, The Beatles launched their own label, Apple Records, with the intent of releasing not only their own music, but music by the artists that were striking their fancy at the time. Collected here for the first time, is everything, excluding of course, The Beatles' output, and it's quite the package.

Mostly everything here has been released before, but the new remastering, handled by the same team that remastered last year's Beatles' boxes, is stunning. Here's what you get:

James Taylor (1968) by James Taylor
Magic Christian Music (1970) by Badfinger
No Dice (1970) by Badfinger
Straight Up (1972) by Badfinger
Ass (1974) by Badfinger
Post Card (1969) by Mary Hopkin
Earth Song, Ocean Song (1971) by Mary Hopkin
That's The Way God Planned It (1969) by Billy Preston
Encouraging Words (1970) by Billy Preston
Doris Troy (1970) by Doris Troy
Is This What You Want (1968) by Jackie Lomax
Under The Jasmine Tree (1968) & Space (1969) by The Modern Jazz Quartet
The Whale (1970) & Celtic Requiem (1971) by John Tavener
The Radha Krishna Temple (1971) by The Radha Krishna Temple

Also included is a single CD collection called "Come & Get It," featuring the best of the Apple singles, as well as a 2 CD set of rarities and alternates from Badfinger, Mary Hopkin and Jackie Lomax.

With the exception of the John Tavener two-fer of avant-garde classical music, something I've yet to embrace, everything here is worth having. Sure, some are better than others.

Badfinger's tragic career was consistently uneven, with the good being great and the not-so-good being awful. But both "No Dice" and the Todd Rundgren produced "Straight Up" are essential. Also essential, the wonderful Doris Troy album, which features 4 songs co-written by George Harrison and special guests Billy Preston, Stephen Stills, Ringo Starr, Peter Frampton and Eric Clapton. This record is a gem, full of upbeat, gospel-fueled soul. I'm feeling that way about both Billy Preston records, as well. His A&M output which followed, seemed to spawn the hits, but I feel that these two records are far superior.

While no jazz fanatic would consider the two MJQ releases as their finest work, both "Space" and "Jasmine Tree" are beautiful collections and completely satisfying. The Jackie Lomax record, another where Harrison is featured prominently, is considered by some to be essential. I like it a lot more now than I ever remembered. You may not go back to the Mary Hopkin's CDs as often as the others, but there is something very charming about both.

My point is, if you're going to attempt a box filled with the entire output of one label, this is the way to do it. I'd ike to also point out that the bonus tracks on several of these new remasters are new to the albums, but EMI wisely included the bonus tracks from the earlier reissues, as well. Smart move.

So the one imperfection? Given the price tag, the packaging is pretty prosaic. Still, if you've got the money and nimble fingers, the Apple Box is a fantastic set.

Sal Nunziato

Burning Wood
Clapton Xroads, 2010, by Eric.

Eric Clapton's Crossroads Festival, 2010 is out on DVD and bluray from Rhino. It's the first of the three festivals to appear on bluray. It's also probably the most diverse in terms of the artists. (It was an eleven hour show.) The emphasis is on interesting combinations, and in that regard, it's an embarrassment of riches: Sonny Landreth with Eric Clapton, Joe Bonamassa & Pino Daniele with Robert Randolph, Robert Cray, Jimmie Vaughn & Hubert Sumlin, Sheryl Crow with Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Doyle Bramhall II & Gary Clark Jr, Stefan Grossman with Keb Mo, Vince Gill, Keb Mo, James Burton, Earl Klugh, Albert Lee with Sheryl Crow Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi Band featuring Warren Haynes, David Hidalgo, Cesar Rojas, Chris Stainton, Buddy Guy with Jonny Lang & Ronnie Wood, Eric with Jeff Beck, Eric with Steve Windwood, and a finale with Eric, BB King, Robert Cray, Jimmie Vaughn, Joe Bonamassa. As I said, interesting. David Hildago et all doing Allman songs sounds great—Greg missed the show because he was getting a new liver and so the band cancelled—and the Buddy Guy/Ronny Wood/John Mayer version of Miss You is interesting because nobody at all knows any of the words. I don't recall Buddy Guy agreeing to play second fiddle, as it were, to BB King before. But the Clapton/Beck pairing is anti-climactic and the Winwood/Clapton part of the show is too brief to really get going, though it's a great version of "Dear Mr. Fantasy." While there's nothing really transcendent here, it strikes me as not worth not having. So many great players in one place doing great songs, that look and sound, at worst, really good.

The Mail:

Ryan Scott
Portland, OR

Greetings Dr. Alterman,

A couple of quick observations before I get to my main point. First, as a long-time reader of your blogs, going back years now, I have been successfully indoctrinated. So, for example, I can't see Marty Peretz's name without thinking of how he wasted the fortunes of two wives. Similarly, when I saw a headline the other day—Huffingtonpost, I think—that said Howard Kurtz was critical of Keith Olbermann for the political donations Olbermann had made, the phrase "Mr. Conflict-of-Interest" came immediately to mind, and it wasn't referring to Olbermann.

Secondly, I often follow your musical recommendations, from Marshall Crenshaw to John Eddie to Paul Thorn, but less often your literary recommendations, because I already have a stack of books I can't find time to read. But I did pick up Operation: Shylock a couple of weeks ago, after you talked about it. It was as good as you'd said, but more surprisingly, genuinely shocking. Could anyone else have written it? (Leaving aside the plot hinged on the two Philip Roths.) It required a level of confidence, talent and chutzpah that I can't think is possessed by anyone else. So, thank you.

Anyway, my main point, which is about Rahm Emanuel. I think too little attention has been paid to his quote that "The only nonnegotiable principle here is success." (And too much attention paid to the one about not letting a crisis go to waste.) I strongly believe this principle is shared by Obama. It is probably born, in part, out of a frustration that no progress has been made on too many problems for too many generations (healthcare, Israel, Afghanistan).

Where the principle fails is that there are times when failure is worth it, because people (allies, enemies, everyone) need to know there is something on which he will not compromise. I think these opportunities are rare. I don't often disagree with progressives on issues of substance, but I do disagree on how many times these opportunities present themselves. Most of the time, I'm glad the president has taken half a loaf. It's the difference between the horribly flawed social security that first passed (with its denial of benefits—at the insistence of Southerners—for domestic help and field hands) and Ted Kennedy's rejection of Nixon's healthcare compromise.

Nevertheless, I think if the White House can grasp a couple of these opportunities to publicly fail as a matter of principle, they will be glad they did. In soundbite television, it is much more fun to assert that you stand for something other than just the passage of legislation, rather than explaining the compromises you had to make. And the American people enjoy a president who is enjoying himself.

Michael Green
Las Vegas, NV

Dr. A., since you were kind enough to include my comments when I said you were wrong, I think you are entitled to include them when I am saying you are right. And to invoke the late, great Red Smith (Walter Wellesley Smith, whose editor once called him the only person he knew with three women's schools for a name—there was a school called Walter, too), when it comes to David Broder, you are as right as a second martini at lunch. Broder wrote a column saying the Democratic Senate caucus planned to oust Harry Reid. Every member of the caucus signed a letter to the Washington Post saying that was wrong. Broder's response? They were lying. Well, gee, Reid is still leader. But whenever he can, Broder takes a shot at Reid, often gratuitously.

By the by, Reid's reelection was also at the expense of a supposed newspaper. The Las Vegas Review-Journal hired a former Associated Press reporter whose slanted accounts of the campaign were a textbook example of how not to slant a news story, because they were so ham-handedly obvious. The publisher wrote a piece saying Reid had suffered a stroke and clearly lacked the health to do the job (the publisher who wrote this had a double bypass and prostate cancer, and both of those involve side effects that affect the brain). On election night he said there had to be fraud to elect Reid, and now he's saying there must have been coercion. You don't have to be a onetime Pulitzer winner to be a journalistic fraud.

Lee Roskin

You are just like Jon Stewart. It is a disgrace to be of the same ethnic group as you two. We see right through you and what we see is disgusting.

The Nation's Eric Alterman is even more brazen, blaming the population for its failure to understand Obama's supposedly far-reaching social agenda. "Well, this being America," he writes, "a great deal of easily exploitable ignorance is fueling the fire. Obama's healthcare reform, his financial reform, the stimulus, the saving of the auto industry, etc. make these two years among the most consequential in the past half-century." In reality, all those initiatives were carefully crafted anti-working class measures which have strengthened the most powerful sections of the ruling elite and worsened conditions for broad layers of the population.

Alterman is typical of the well-heeled liberal element that makes a profession of spreading illusions in the Democrats. A 2003 piece in the New York Observer described an encounter with the Nation journalist at a fashionable Manhattan restaurant. "Mr. Alterman reeked of success," the author wrote. The Observer went on to note that Alterman "ordered foie gras, the Kobe beef and a glass of pinot noir. Earlier, he'd said he liked his lunches ‘expensive.'"

Editor's Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Slacker Friday

The new “Think Again” column is called “War for the Hell of It: The Sad Decline of David Broder” and it’s here. Apparently David Broder has lost what’s left of his mind and his editors at the Post are unwilling to save the man from himself.

New Nation column, my favorite lyric of the moment, “You Are Only Coming Through in Waves,” and it’s about our badly communicating president who doesn’t really understand the atmosphere in which he’s operating, here with a short appreciation of Ted Sorensen.

And I did a “Blame Rahm” piece for The Daily Beast over the weekend.

Oh, and here's this month's Moment column, The New Religion for America's Jews: Israel.

And did you know Hitler was a Springsteen fan? Came to it rather late, though, I’d say…

Now here’s LTC Bob.

Letters from a Semi-Foreign Land

Vol. I, Issue 2

Hello Altercators, LTC Bob here again, this time writing to you from a somewhat more foreign land: Norway. I am here in Stavanger in the midst of a fairly large training event known as the “Mission Readiness Exercise.” This, quite naturally it seems, is instantly shortened into an acronym, the MRE. Which only serves to confuse me and other Americans new to this environment even more, because to us an “MRE” is something you eat, not something you do. (The American field ration is the “Meal, Ready-to-Eat”) All of which brings me to my first multi-national military observation: We American military officers are not the only ones who are absolute lunatics about the creation of acronyms. It is a pan-European problem as well.

While here at the ARRC (remember that term from last week?) I am the Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff for the group within the headquarters where I work. That title becomes “DACOS.”  When I first heard soldiers outside my office talking to each other about how, “DACOS wants you to…” or, “When I was talking to DACOS yesterday he said…” I did not even realize that they were talking about me. This, apparently, is also a norm across the NATO environment. (DACOS is pronounced, apparently, “Day-Cawse.”)

Another language barrier issue came to me via our British cousins. Somewhere, somehow, the still very class-conscious British Army developed the tradition that officers above, say, lieutenant and below two-star general are referred to and even addressed personally as, “Rank, First Name.” This is not something we do in the States, at all, and to my American ears it is disconcerting. Yes, sure, you Altercators call me “Major Bob” and now “LTC Bob,” but almost all of you are civilians not brought up with my sub-culture’s social conventions, and besides, it’s in print, and so eventually I’ve gotten used to your use. But I had never, in my entire professional life, actually heard anyone say that out loud. And to hear a subordinate, say a captain, refer to “Colonel George” (or whomever) spun my brain a little. I do not know what any of this means, but if there are any cultural anthropologists or social psychologists out there with an opinion on this topic I would love to hear from you.

One final note about language, then I have to sign off and get back to work.

My wife and I (yes, she’s my wife now, the same woman who I would refer to as “my beloved” when I was in Iraq) found magnificent lodgings in the Cotswalds region of England. With a good tailwind I can even spit on a battlefield from the War of the Roses, and I actually live on the grounds of a manor house built in the 1300’s. My house was a recent addition.  Built in the 1600’s it was once the lodgings for the stable and cleaning servants. With the attached stables, I can host a horde of friends, and five horses. The manor itself, however, is still owned by the eighth or ninth generation of one family, and they are very “Old School.” (In the British, not the Will Farrell, sense of the word.) The Squire, I will call him that even though it is not one of his formal titles, seems to love calling me simply, “The Colonel.” As in, “Dear, come to the door, The Colonel is visiting.” And when he does that, and I am wearing blue jeans and a golf shirt, it immediately makes me feel underdressed, like I left my jodhpurs at home accidentally.

It might be a class thing, it might be a cultural thing, it might even be a regional thing, but whatever it is, it is confusing. Civilians at home call me Bob. This eminent seems to absolutely love using only my rank when talking about, or to, me. I guess it may in the end just be the confusion normal to an American plebian finding his way in a semi-foreign land.

As always you can write to me at R_Bateman_LTC@Hotmail.com. To those who wrote last week, sorry about not getting back to you yet. As you can see, I am a tad busy.

The Mail

Michael Green
Las Vegas, NV

Dr. A., if I may paraphrase the late Paul Harvey on Richard Nixon, I love you, but you're wrong.

Let's do a little math.  It takes 60 votes to get anything passed in the Senate.  Republicans made a conscious decision that they would oppose anything and everything Barack Obama brought to the table.  Why?  I tend toward a combination of racism, hatred for their country and a complete lack of morality and ideas, but that isn't the point. The point is, they did it.

I remember a profile in which Obama kept telling Harry Reid to negotiate with Olympia Snowe.  Reid finally told him that Snowe would negotiate everything she could get, then oppose the bill, and that they would just need to get all of the Democratic caucus.  One member of that caucus was, for example, Russ Feingold, whom I seem to recall attacking Obama for not being liberal enough in his legislative approach.  Another member of that caucus would be Joe Lieberman, whom Reid wanted to kick out on two separate occasions, and Obama stopped him, for the very logical reason that we needed 60 votes.

To attack Emanuel is easy. But it is a lot easier when you don't look at how the Senate is set up.

Now, you write that Emanuel's approach in 2006 got us a bunch of wimpy Democrats. I agree. They are in the House, which has a completely different set of rules that made it a lot easier for Nancy Pelosi to pass legislation.

Cheryl Haaker

Reed Richardson is another Ambrose Bierce! I would add, to his definition of center: For liberal/progressives, a far-right position bordering on feudalism. For Republicans and Tea Baggers, a far-left position, bordering on communism. In short, the center cannot hold.

Editor's Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Once Every Thousand Years…

The new “Think Again” column is called “War for the Hell of It: The Sad Decline of David Broder” and it’s here. Apparently David Broder has lost what’s left of his mind and his editors at the Post are unwilling to save the man from himself.

New Nation column, my favorite lyric of the moment, “You Are Only Coming Through in Waves” and it’s about our badly communicating president who doesn’t really understand the atmosphere in which he’s operating, here with a short appreciation of Ted Sorensen.

And I did a “Blame Rahm” piece for The Daily Beast over the weekend.

Oh, and here's this month's Moment Column, The New Religion for America's Jews: Israel.

Asshat?” Really, Rosanne?

This is terribly funny.

Did you know that this Sunday is a Global Day of Jewish Learning in honor of Adan Steinholtz's completion of 45 volumes of commentary on the Taldmud, the first such effort in 900 years (since Rashi) and only the second time ever? Incredible. How many things have only been done twice ever?  What’s left? Well, there’s Don Larsen’s world series perfect game and Reggie Jackson hitting three pitches out of the park for three home runs, and baseball is only, like, one-tenth as old as Judaism. Seriously, it’s an amazing accomplishment. Words fail.  But it’s also a nice reminder that things pass. Rashi, after all, was ten centuries ago...

Want to feel really bad about the prospects for Middle East peace? Read this.


THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW: The Complete Series 17- DVD box set

It’s been a rough week all around. And even when it’s not, there are damn few things in life that qualify as unadulterated good news. Most upsides have a downside. Get what you think you want in life and you will find that you probably didn’t want it as much as you though you did. One thing, however, I can guarantee is nothing but good news is Shout! Factory’s release of the The Complete Larry Sanders Show on 17 DVDs, 89 episodes, 2800 minutes, or so they say. Let’s not waste time arguing what was the “best” show on TV ever. (OK, some nominations: The Odd Couple, The Simpsons, The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Mad Men, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bob Newhart, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, The West Wing, The Sopranos, Deadwood. Go ahead, argue if you must.) Let’s just say that Larry Sanders was in there. And it was long enough ago that you can’t possibly remember all the jokes and clever little asides that you might not have noticed the first time. And what an amazing cast Gary Shandling amassed with Rip Torn’s priceless Artie, Jeffrey Tambor’s insanely great Hank “Hey Now” Kingsley, Janeane Garofalo, Bob Odenkirk, Jeremy Piven, Sarah Silverman, etc. (I did not know that Judd Apatow was a co-producer.) Guest stars just begin with Carol Burnett, Tom Petty, Jerry Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin, John Stewart,  and an ogle-worthy Sharon Stone. Anyway, The Larry Sanders Show was the hippest TV show . . . probably ever. Late-night would never be the same again. Amazingly, it’s only a hundred bucks at Amazon.  It’ll be one of the best hundred bucks you ever spent. What else will put you in a good mood, over and over, for 2800 minutes for only a hundred bucks. And if you’re my age, you can start again, when you’re done, because you will have forgotten it all by then. It comes with a 60 page viewer guide. Every time I put it on, it improves my mood.  My profound thanks to everyone involved.

What else have I been watching? Well, I got three new blurays this week.

Seen Toy Story 3? Damn thing got me all choked up at the end. It’s a really wonderfully written movie and a great cast too. (Don Rickles? What a great idea.) I thought the Rotten Tomato rating was rather high until I saw the thing.  Anyone who doesn’t like this is a bad person. It comes with filmmaker commentary with Director Lee Unkrich and Producer Darla K. Anderson, and lots of stuff about Pixar, along with a digital copy your kid can download and keep on her computer. I also got the bluray of “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.” I really expected to like this because of the reviews. Tony Scott said, “You may want to see it again as soon as it’s over.”  Excuse me but the dude is nuts. The movie blows.  I mean, I’m sufficiently immature to appreciate almost anything and this had some good lines, but I guess I have no patience for “video-game inspired” films. I did not make it to the end… Michael Cera is wasted. There are some extras, like a “making of” video and stuff, if you like video-game inspired movies. I don’t. The really exciting release in the Old Fart category is the six disc bluray release of all three “Back to the Future” films. I remember seeing the original at an 11:00 showing on the same day as the original Live Aid back in 1985. I remember feeling that it was a movie about loving movies—though the pretend Chuck Berry line went a little too far. A guy on Amazon says it “comes off as a Twilight Zone episode written by Preston Sturges.” What could be better than that?  The other two are not really bad. This person in Slate says they are about incest. I dunno. If so, it’s not nearly so incest-y as that Hot Tub movie last year. That was gross. And anyway, so what? It’s only a movie. Nobody’s making anybody do anything they don’t want to do.  Much of the movie series is actually a beautiful evocation of America as we wish it would be, and Michael J. Fox is just perfectly cast for that. (They had a problem with the original release and people are getting them replaced, by the way, so be careful when you buy yours.) There are a gazillion extras, the main one being, “ Tales from the Future:" 6-part retrospective documentary featuring all-new interviews with Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Director Robert Zemeckis, and Exec Producer, Steven Spielberg and so many other things you can’t even count them but Amazon has them listed here.

Need some more good news? Here’s some.  Starting on the Day of the Dead (November 1), dead.net, the official website of the Grateful Dead, will kick off 30 DAYS OF DEAD. Every day throughout the entire month of November, the Grateful Dead will post a different live track on dead.net that will be free to download for one day only. The band’s archivist Dave Lemieux hand-picked each of the 30 career-spanning tracks from the Dead’s extensive vault. Each free song download will be a high-quality (320 kps) mp3 and nearly all of the 30 tracks are previously unreleased soundboard recordings.In addition to the free music, 30 DAYS OF DEAD will also include daily and weekly contests. When a new track is posted on dead.net each day at approximately Noon EST, the first person to correctly identify both the complete date (Month, Day, Year) and venue of the performance in the comments section will win their choice of any copy from the Dead’s ongoing Road Trips series.

Now here’s Reed:

Reed Richardson writes:

The C words

Com•pro•mise — [käm-prə-miz] n [Middle English fr. Middle French compromis fr. Latin compromissum.1. In the wake of the GOP takeover of the House, what the Dean of the Beltway press corps now believes President Obama finally must do after two years of getting exactly what he wants on every single piece of major legislation, if he hopes to win reelection in 2012. Ex:

Facing all these challenges at once, Obama did what seemed natural. He turned to his outsize Democratic majorities in Congress and said essentially, ‘Folks, I need you to fix this.’


The Democrats on Capitol Hill were eager to respond, but they did so in the way that they always will. Instead of acting promptly and with discipline, they dallied and used the delays to bargain for better benefits for their constituents and contributors.


What began as a sound economic stimulus, along with health-care and energy bills, became a swollen expensive and ineffective legislative monstrosity.


Somewhere along the way, Obama lost sight of his campaign pledge to enlist Republican ideas and votes. Maybe they were never there to be had, but he never truly tested it.

2. What President Obama actually did to enlist Republican support on every single piece of major legislation, successful or not, from the stimulus, to health care, to cap-and-trade, to financial reform, and most likely will do with the soon-to-be expiring “Bush tax cuts”, but rarely without getting slapped down, rebuffed, or ignored for his efforts by the very party he was trying to coax into governing.

3. What the new GOP majority’s leadership in the House has no intention of seeking with President Obama or the Democratic-majority Senate, a tactic it settled upon nearly two years ago.

Chall•enge — [chal-ənj] vb Middle English chalengen fr. Old French chalengier fr. Latin calumniari.

1. Thanks to Tuesday’s electoral results and Obama’s middling approval numbers, what increasing numbers of the Beltway media and the punditocracy believe the President will draw from within his own party when he runs for reelection in 2012, particularly if he does follow the pundits’ advice (see above definition). Ex.:

But the big issue is compromise. Obama actually wants to get things done. Which means he has to compromise with Republicans and has to risk angering and losing his liberal base. That makes him vulnerable to attack from the left, which is where Dean now stands.

2. What growing numbers of disenchanted Obama voters believe the President should face in 2012 as well, even though those most likely to support a Democratic primary opponent are, demographically speaking, the least likely to vote Democratic in the first place and inexplicably blame the President for his inability to get Republicans to work with him. Ex.:

Nobody wants to work with this guy,’ said Steven Fagin, 45, of Cincinnati. A Democrat and 2008 Obama voter, he cited deep divisions between Democrats and Republicans. ‘We're never going to get anything done.’


The survey found that those likeliest to oppose Obama’s re-election include men, older people, those without college degrees and whites. Those groups mostly supported his 2008 Republican opponent, John McCain.

3. Something difficult, like manufacturing a media narrative that Obama must compromise if he wants to win reelection, but that by compromising, he’s also likely to draw a Democratic opponent that could ultimately weaken him and harm his chances for political reelection (cf. also “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”).

Cen•ter — [sent-ər] n [Middle English centre fr. Middle French fr. Latin centrum.

1. A magical place in American politics, existing only in the minds of a few members of the Washington press corps, wishy-washy politicians and opportunistic, mealymouth thinktanks, where everyone gets along and parties love to work together (cf. def. 2 of compromise, also known as "Democrats give in") to enact the very best policies in government that everyone agrees upon always, with comity, also.

2. A fence-sitting position that allows politicians to publicly bemoan “excessive partisanship” while failing to offer up much in the way of alternative solutions. Ex.:

For people that I care about, [this election’s] a wake-up call to not just have business as usual. But to change the process so that we can deliver the kind of results that the American people want. Not far right or far left but practical solutions to our problems.

3. The ideological space where, if there is to be a Democratic challenger to Obama in 2012, I’m increasingly convinced the primary opponent will come from, whether or not the President compromises with the Republicans (cf. “unused campaign cash” and “protests otherwise notwithstanding”).

The Mail

Don Appel
Riverdale, NY
Welcome back, Col. Bateman! You were greatly missed!

Editor's Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Slacker Friday Surprise: The Return of LTC Bob

My New Think Again column is called, “And they Call it Democracy,” and it’s here.

Here are two good questions I saw raised in this fine article from the often neocon-friendly Tablet magazine profile of J Street:

It’s not clear how J Street’s tax returns wound up being released to the general public. People involved with the organization speculate, darkly, that in an election cycle awash in money from undisclosed sources, only an intentional leak from inside the IRS could explain why J Street was the only group apparently affected. “Why only J Street? Who in the IRS did that? Were they affiliated with our adversaries? I don’t know the answers,” said Victor A. Kovner, a prominent New York attorney and longtime board member of Americans for Peace Now who is co-chair of the finance committee for J Street’s PAC. “We didn’t announce who they were because they had an expectation of confidentiality.”

But the controversy over the Soros revelation, while driven by J Street’s regular critics on the right, gained traction among even its sympathizers because it hit a nerve that had nothing to do with political litmus tests. It was instead about the kind of group J Street’s supporters wanted to imagine they were building, which is to say, the antithesis of AIPAC, which many of the left view as overly secretive. “J Street has positioned itself so that it smells and feels OK to that constituency that does not have its sole Jewish identity through Israel politics,” said Bunzl. “It is an organization that smells and feels good to people who go to shul.”

Speaking, as we often do, of Jews, I was leaving Dizzy’s at Jazz at Lincoln Center last night where I saw Kenny Warner do a show with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra and I entered into an elevator full of them. I wondered aloud at the oddity of the sight, I mean Jews like Jazz, but not only Jews... I was informed that they were there for a benefit performance to raise money for the American Jewish World Service. Now as it happens, I actually wrote a check this year to the AJWS for $528 and raised $472 more this year in honor of a friend of mine who does some work for them, but I don't recall an invite. But given the excellent show I saw, I didn’t mind.  But all this is by way of suggesting you watch this wonderful Judd Apatow video and give them some gelt yourself.

Also on the topic of funny videos, this is sadly hysterical and this is a great political commercial.

Now for the Big News:

Letters from a Semi-Foreign Land
Vol. I, ISSUE 1. 28 September 2010

Hello again Altercators. It has been a while, I know, since I was last here. But then that is somewhat understandable, given my reasons for writing with/for Eric in the first place. As many recall from when I first started here on Altercation, at the invitation of my good friend (and sometime Vice-Presidential Running Mate) Charlie Pierce, my presence was initially without any purpose at all, other than to help explain some things about the military to Pierce, which he then asked if he could pass on to you. Over the course of a few postings back in 2004 I realized that I really should have something of a reason, and what I settled on was something simple. I would show you, a part of the American public, something of the life of a career professional military officer, both at home in the States, and then while I was at war. That was all.

So, when I left Iraq in 2006, there was not a whole lot more left for me to say. I’d let you all see a little bit of what I saw, passed on a few observations, a few insights, a few frustrations and then I was back, tucked away in a safe little cubicle in the Pentagon. And believe me, for all the drama that is associated in the general public perception of that place, the reality is almost completely mundane. Dilbert would feel immediately and completely comfortable in quite a few areas of that building. Then, when I got word about the assassination of my translator that spring, well I thought that was about enough for then.

And so now, why am I back? Well, for just about the same reason as the first time: I am going to war again. Not with US troops to Iraq this time though. No, I’ll be heading out with a NATO headquarters known as the “ARRC” (the “Allied Rapid Reaction Corps”), which is currently based in a beautiful corner of a beautiful country which is only semi-foreign to most Americans, the United Kingdom.

I only just arrived here a few weeks ago, and I am still getting my feet underneath me, but whilst here (See? I’m already beginning to write like a Brit) I’ll send Eric some updates. Then in the new year there will be a period of silence for a bit while I am in transit, before finally I will start updating you from Afghanistan. We’ll see what happens from there. For now, I’ll just sign off with the note that it’s good to be back.

As always, you can write to me at R_Bateman_LTC@Hotmail.com. I’ll do my best to keep up.

Asher Fried
Croton on Hudson NY

Face facts man, the poem was funny

Daphne Chyprious
Springfield, IlI.

I'm surprised Mr. Chancery the Poet didn't write of "Eric the Hysteric." And it actually rhymes, unlike "ferret," which he no doubt settled on after much deliberation.

Editor's Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Paint it Blacker

 My New Think Again column is called, “And they Call it Democracy,” and it’s here.

The Israel Palestine issue has got to be the most annoying issue in the history of humankind.  I take a lot of crap from right-wingers for my “What Liberal Media?” related arguments and I get a fair bit of abuse from Nader-style lefties who accuse me of being in the pocket of the Democratic Establishment, but nothing compares to the personal abuse and vitriol I receive from both sides whenever I write about the Middle East. Last week’s column appeared only to inspire pro-Palestinian jerks, though I get the “pro-Israel” types on my case just as often. Two examples

1) The first Pro-Palestinian Jerk, writing on the Nation Institute sponsored website Mondoweiss, explains, I kid you not, that there is no appreciable difference between my views and those of Martin Peretz. Don’t believe me? See here

2) The second is a pleasant fellow who wrote me saying his name is “Dean Chancery,” though if I were this stupid, I wouldn’t be giving my real name, and sent this:

There once was a progressive named Eric. Had a face that resembled a ferret. When he spoke of Zion, he was always lyin'. A feckless, pusillanimous hack...who in essence was an AIPAC and JINSA flack. A typical parvenu Jew who often cried "boo-hoo". At The Nation—he causes nothing but aggravation. Soon he will whine: "There's a poem in my 'zine", and when denied a raise...he'll twaddle off in a craze, and maybe they'll do the right thing and ship his four-eyed, meretricious punk ass back to Haifa.

What’s so funny (but also sad) about the idiocy on display above is the column was merely descriptive before it came to its prescription. Nowhere in it did I comment on the alleged justice or injustice of the situation. But there are plenty of people on both sides—and in the cases above, the Palestinian side—who really couldn’t care less about actually doing the Palestinians any good. What they want is the same feeling of moral superiority that Peretz, Foxman and the settlers evince when speaking about Arabs and Palestinians. It’s a sad truth of this conflict that the Palestinians have been as much the victims of their “friends” as their enemies. Israel, too, to some degree, but it’s a much nicer place to live. (As Edward Said used to like to say, “It’s like crossing a border from Bangladesh to Southern California.”

Remember those Hamas fellows whom The Nation finds so difficult to criticize in the midst of its regular attacks on Israel? Well, how are you guys about this?

Speaking during a visit to a university in the town of Hamas Foreign Minister, Khan Younis, Hamad said, "We are coming to occupy Haifa and Akko. We'll have armies from all around the world, and the convoys arriving in Gaza are carrying a message to our people, saying that we must stick to the path of jihad. The enemy is trying to impose a siege on us, but they are the ones under a siege and behind fences." Yeah, I’d want to sign a peace agreement with that guy…

A friend also sent me this, observing, “This gets at the weird way in which Peretz's writing is actually valuable:”

“Frankly, I am also sick and tired of the tiny covered wagon townlets in the middle of Judea and Samaria, and I am disgusted by the "hilltop youth" (they are not gentle hippies, believe me) who harass the Palestinians by arson and by the bearded ex-Brooklynites who cut down olive trees as if they are grizzly Douglas fir evergreens sprouting in Boro Park. Still, they are an asset, these irritating pious ones, and they should not be withdrawn until a proximate Arab polity, such as it is, is willing to live in peace with a Jewish state called Israel.”

Got it? Illegally occupied land. Violent intimidation. Broken agreements with the rest of the world. All good, because Arabs are bad…

Peace is a long way off, alas, thanks to all of the above.


Last night I went with a bunch of Brooklyn College student scholars to see “Persephone” at BAM. I liked it. I have a thing for Julia Stiles and the production is interesting and innovative. But I heard a lot of complaints from the audience on my way back to the BAM bus.  So read up on it if you’re thinking of going.

The night before, I got to see Jackson Browne backed up by Steve van Zandt together with Nile Rodgers and Chic. The cause was an awards dinner where Steve gave Jackson a humanitarian award on behalf of the “We Are Family” foundation, which “creates and supports educational programs that foster mutual respect, understanding and appreciation of cultural diversity that are currently used in more than 20 countries on 5 continents” if you don’t know, you can check out at wearefamilyfoundation.org & threedotdash.org. Anyway, there was some genuinely moving stuff, regarding the work that kids are doing in insanely tough circumstance that would defeat most of the rest of us, and a live auction, where a Springsteen-signed ‘54 Fender went for $35K and then (finally) the band did “Doctor My Eyes,” “Somebody’s Baby,” “Lives in the Balance” and “Running on Empty” with some terrific slide work by Steve. All this was followed by a full set by Chic, whom the amazingly talented Rodgers called “the world’s most expensive bar-mitzvah band,” which reminded me of the night I saw the band in 1979 or so, and it cured me of my “hate disco” ignorance. Proudly, I like to think I was the only white boy in the audience who knew all, and I do mean all, the words to “Rapper’s Delight.” Anyway, Jackson was a terrific choice for the award to congrats to him and Rodgers, who started the foundation, both.

Tired of reading about Keith Richards yet? There’s Janet Maslin, Michiko Kakutani and Maureen Dowd in the Paper of Record and David Remnick in The New Yorker, which has the most amazing photo of Keith I’ve ever seen.

And I love Keith as much as anyone—he is particularly charming in Terry Gross’s interview but I’m a bit annoyed by what I think is Keith’s forty year slander of Phil Chess, that began with the Stones' visit to record at Chess Studios in 1964, during which time Keith claimed to have seen McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield up on a ladder painting the place.  I mean if even 1/100th of the stories in the memoir are true—and then again if they aren’t—then pretty much nothing that Keef says should be taken to the bank. This story has been repeated over and over to illustrate the alleged plantation quality of Chess, but as Nadine Cohodas, author of Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000) explains on pp. 243-44

Keith Richards is responsible for one of the most widely circulated myths about the Chess operation. In a well-publicized interview he claimed that when he came into the building and went upstairs to the studio, he passed a man in coveralls on a ladder painting the ceiling. Someone said, “Oh, by the way, this is Muddy Waters.” “He wasn’t selling records at the time,” Richards said, “and this was the way he got treated.”

Pungent, colorful, the story was politically salable to those who see the Chess brothers as little more than racist exploiters. But it didn’t happen. “That’s a lie. I can’t even imagine it,” said Billy Davis, who was at the studio everyday, all day. “I never saw Muddy painting or nailing or scrubbing or any of that bullshit…If he went up a ladder Leonard would be the first one to say ‘get your ass down. You know, I don’t want you fallin’ off those damn ladders.’”

In more erudite terms Edwards, the jazz A&R man, who, like Davis, was at the studio every day, echoed the sentiment. “Leonard had too much respect for Muddy. I never saw it,” he said. “I’m no friend of the Chess family, but fair is fair.” LaPalm was sure Waters wasn’t even in the building that June day: “Muddy was never on a ladder painting a wall at Chess records. That’s a fabrication.”

Waters never spoke about his alleged painting in the interviews he gave about the Rolling Stones and Chess.

Not in dispute about this June visit are the songs that were recorded in those two days, among them: Waters’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” and “2120 South Michigan” an instrumental written in honor of the building. “2120” and five other songs from those sessions were included on the band’s second album, "12x5".

So cut it out, everybody.  While enjoying the new book, you might want to throw on the new bluray of “Ladies & Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones", which was shot over four nights in Texas during the "Exile on Main Street" tour in 1972, was released in cinemas for limited engagements in 1974 (where I saw it) and has remained largely unseen since.  It’s the band near its peak—certainly in terms of the material it plays—with Keith at his most zonked out and Jagger at his most ridiculous with a ton of eye makeup and stuffing in his sequined jump suit; Still, it’s great and something no Stones fan should be without, really.

Finally, Mr. Remnick casually tosses off the observation that the Stones have not recorded a memorable song in thirty years. Far be it from me to dispute the judgment of America’s greatest editor/reporter, plus the brilliant fact-checkers at The New Yorker, twice in one blog post, but:

Start Me Up, Hang Fire, Waiting for a Friend, 1981
Undercover of the Night, 1983
Love is Strong, I Go Wild, 1984
One Hit to the Body, 1986,
Mixed Emotions, 1994
Don’t Stop,  Stealin’ My Heart, 2002
Biggest Mistake, Oh No, Not You Again, 2005

Ok, I admit that that’s not much. And it was a lot of work to come up with it. But still, as unmemorable as most of the post 81 work has been, it still sounds pretty good when you put it on. I have “A Bigger Bang” on as I write this and it’s just fine…

“The Promise” is coming, which, according to my calculations, will be the greatest single musical release of all time; a bargain at $500 (but you only have to pay…)  Bruce talks about it here.

Now here’s Reed:

Reed Richardson writes:

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

Newsweek explains the Democratic Party’s Congressional losses next Tuesday in a nutshell:

Compare 2010 with 1994, the last year a new Democratic president lost control of Congress to the GOP. While the overall percentage of Americans who now say they are dissatisfied with the country's direction (68 percent) is slightly lower than the percentage recorded in August 1994 (71 percent), the economy is a much stronger source of discontent than it was 16 years ago. In 1994, for example, only 52 percent of voters named ‘economic conditions in general’ as a primary reason for their unhappiness. Today, that percentage has shot up to 75 percent. In 1994, 45 percent cited ‘not enough good-paying jobs’ as a major factor. Today, the number has climbed to 56 percent.

When three out of every four of your constituents are unhappy about the overall economy and more than half are disappointed or fearful for their livelihoods, the people in charge, deservedly or not, are about to get their political clocks cleaned. Yet, after seeing these ominous polling numbers (and, for good measure, this even more frightening picture of the unemployment hole we’re in), the fact that the Democrats stand a good chance of retaining a slim majority in the Senate and limiting the damage in the House to roughly the same net loss—52 seats—as 16 years ago is damn near miraculous.

But, in the aftermath of next Tuesday, once the rosy Republican results have rolled in, be prepared to endure an endless round of more “nuanced”—read worthless—analyses of the election and “what it all means,” almost none of it grounded in the realities of the stark economic climate that faced incumbents this year.  You might even hear a cable TV commentator or read a news analysis that tries to put the election results in context by hearkening back to the GOP’s 1994 midterm elections prop—the wildly unsuccessful Contract with America—which some in the Beltway media still mistakenly believe, years later, was the fuel behind the Republican Congressional takeover 16 years ago. The truth was, of course, something quite different—more than two-thirds of voters back then hadn’t even heard of it as of Election Day. And if someone tries to sell you a similar whopper this year about how the GOP’s half-hearted, 2010 “Contract” rehash—the much longer, more banal and far less specific “Pledge to America”—had an impact on swaying independent voters, much less conservative ones, you’ll know why the saying “there are no new jokes” might apply just as well to political punditry.

And no matter what happens, come next Wednesday morning, just remember this.

The mail:


Eric, You mentioned being busy with a book deadline, and there's this cuckoo election cycle to get through, but I have been thinking.  I once found a great deal to admire in Chris Hedge's work, but I've been increasingly confused by him.  I don't see any reality with him as to moving toward solutions, though I'm certainly as dismayed by so many of the same issues he often addresses as to our times in the nation.  He gives me a headache.  His stuff feels hateful to me now.  Tell me if I'm wrong.  This isn't for print, but for your insights here when you have time to offer some.

I remember before reading one of his rants about the system as to college education, getting into schools, how horrendous was testing and what should be offered by the student to achieve entrance, while he ensured that his own kid knew how to play to game to get a proper elite education.  Too much cognitive dissonance for me.

Somewhere between the Twilight Zone of many "ideas"  nowadays and such rants is some sort of realistic, sensible thought to grab onto, while resisting what we must.

Debi Riggs Shaw
Philadelphia, PA

To Reed Richardson, re: Oct. 22, 2010 Altercation—
Reed, I greatly respect and enjoy your writings here on Altercation, but I couldn’t disagree more with regard to your argument against NPR’s policy of non-involvement in partisan (or appearance of partisan) activities.  First, comparing this policy to an example of an NPR content-lite piece does not deal with whether the policy itself is reasonable or not, because plenty of news outlets are doing similar hollow reporting, with or without such a policy in place.  Second, I can tell you that as a state employee I am bound by similar ethical constraints against partisan political activities as the journalists at NPR, and it does not hurt my freedom to impact my democracy.  To suggest as many have that this somehow makes people like me a victim of civil liberties violations is beyond absurd.  Yes, it is a sacrifice, but it is also my choice if I want to work in this sector, and as anyone who knows me can tell you, it certainly doesn’t stop me from speaking my mind.

The question is, how comfortable are you with the coverage of a particular candidate by a reporter known to stump for that candidate?  How credible would that reporter’s information be?  And how comfortable would you be with the coverage of liberal activists by reporters known to speak out against the issues favored by those activists?  A look at Fox shows where the latter ends up:  completely compromised propaganda instead of facts and evidence, given credibility by the rest of a journalistic world too intimidated or jaded to call it out for what it is.

Yes, people know pretty much where John Stewart stands personally, but he is not a reporter, he is a comedian.  When he interviews, we know he is speaking from a liberal perspective, making it easier for conservatives to ignore him, whereas a journalist who reports objective fact-based stories can let the data fall where it may, and that data will not be left or right, but simply data.

The problem is that we are now so used to propaganda by biased talking heads that when data makes only one side look bad, we assume it, too, must be propaganda, with no more basis in fact than any Beck-inflected history revision.  The result?  Those reporting it are accused of partisanship, the news outlets are spooked into ramping up their ridiculous on-one-hand on-the-other-hand scorekeeping and soon Edward R. Murrow has been replaced by Chic Anderson.  There are damned few ethical news organizations left, and we really should support NPR for at least trying to maintain some integrity, even if, as the rest of us often do, they fall short in trying.

Reed Replies: Honestly, I’d never given much thought to comparing public employees’ ethics guidelines with the mainstream media’s until Ms. Shaw’s thoughtful letter. But now that I have, I’m even more convinced that most major media organizations are overreaching when it comes to their ethics policies.

Ms. Shaw says she feels politically unfettered despite having to abide by certain state employee ethical restrictions. Obviously, that’s her opinion and she’s entitled to it, but from what I can surmise from the ethics rules for Pennsylvania state employees, there doesn’t seem to be any additional restrictions on her individual political advocacy that wouldn’t already be considered illegal (taking a direct bribe) and/or highly unethical (accepting or offering a gift, promise of a job, or political donation in return for improper influence or special treatment) in any walk of life.

Still, the ethical restrictions she’s referring to may concern the Hatch Act, which does restrict federal and many state employees’ personal political activities to avoid potential conflicts of interest and prevent corruption. Even so, the Act’s rules of engagement still make a clear distinction between public employees’ official duties and their private lives. Indeed, take a look at this handy Hatch Act primer on what federal employees may and may not do with regard to actively participating in democracy and then compare that to the broad-based political restrictions found in the ethics policies of mainstream media outlets like NPR or the New York Times. If you do, you’ll find that public employees, who are still allowed to sign petitions, attend political rallies, make campaign contributions, canvass for candidates and participate in partisan GOTV efforts when not officially on duty, enjoy far more freedoms (or are asked to make far fewer sacrifices, take your pick) than any mainstream journalist. If public employees, who directly affect the way our government functions, can be trusted to separate their personal and public personas, why then can’t a copy editor at the Times or a field producer at NPR be given the same benefit of the doubt?

To her question of my comfort level with, say, Fox News covering President Obama, I’d say I’m fine with it because I know what kind of frequently flawed coverage to expect and I approach each article with a corresponding amount of skepticism. What's more, Fox News, for all its many journalistic faults and propagandist tendencies, isn’t, as Ms. Shaw contends, the natural outcome of what would happen should I suddenly get my way. In fact, the blatant rightward tilt of Fox News is not due to some bottom-up accretion of its individual journalists’ conservative political biases. Rather, it is much more a top-down, institutional bias, one that, at its core, is essentially a marketing strategy wrapped up in a partisan banner, as the recent l’affaire de Juan Williams demonstrated.

Now, I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Shaw that the rest of the major news organizations appear too spooked and/or intimidated to consistently call out the willingness of Fox News to flaunt the conventional rules of journalism in service of its own agenda. This failure, however, is symptomatic of the same ineffectual groupthink that results in the mainstream media’s “ridiculous, on-one-hand, on-the-other-hand scorekeeping” of political issues and candidates that Ms. Shaw later criticizes. Organizations like NPR and the Times talk about how they are staking their journalistic credibility future on their impartiality, but what they are really trying to preserve is their authority. And part and parcel of this preservation effort is an ethical approach dead set on ignoring and hiding the individual biases that populate their respective newsrooms. But every objective, fact-based story is, after all, really an undeniable act of journalistic subjectivity; it’s a reporter and his or her editors deciding what viewpoints to include or what data to leave out. To argue otherwise is to fall into a trap where the appearing-to-be-fair standard becomes the de facto lone standard for actual fair coverage, which leaves the press increasingly vulnerable to missing actual bias in a story. And, in the long run, this lack of transparency and increasingly untenable “view from nowhere” posture of pure neutrality—the fatuousness of which NYU media professor Jay Rosen ably reexamined after NPR’s firing of Williams—I fear will only further erode the public’s trust in the press. Worse still, this myopia harms the most those “damned few ethical news organizations,” as Ms. Shaw puts it, that are actually trying to maintain some integrity and enrich our democracy.

Editor's Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Opinions Are Like...

I am racing my book deadline today. Here is the most excellent Table of Contents:

Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama
Introduction: You’ve Got A Lot of Nerve To Say You Are My Friend.
Chapter 1: The Autumn Weather Turns the Leaves to Flame
Chapter 2: Don’t Know What I Want But I Know How to Get It
Chapter 3: If That’s All There Is, My Friend, Then Let’s Keep Dancing
Chapter 4: What It Don’t Get, I Can’t Use
Chapter 5: I Read the News Today, Oh Boy
Conclusion: It's Here They Got the Range And The Machinery For Change
Post-Election Epilogue

Ok, back to business:

New Think Again column: Extremist Liberals? Say What?
New Nation column: West Bank Stories
Weekend Daily Beast column:  "Don't Ask, Don't Think" (or something)

Meanwhile, in Marty news, get this Druze-hating:

Marty Peretz, "Ahmadinejad At The Lebanese-Israeli Border—Another Obama Debacle," 10/15/10:
For some time, the Obama administration feigned support for the Sunni center dominated by the Hariri many-billions kleptocracy which allied itself with the mostly Maronite Christians and the Druze. But Christians, including those associated with a neo-fascistic general Michel Aoun, also defected to the Shi’a, as did the congenitally untrustworthy Druze, always ready to make a deal they will break.

and this

"Harvard Student Government Calls on President Faust to Investigate Peretz Fund, Condemns University for Honoring Him" Cambridge, Oct. 19—Harvard’s Undergraduate Council voted overwhelmingly yesterday in favor of a bill calling on President Drew Faust “to establish a commission of concerned faculty, students and administrators to investigate” the decision to honor Martin Peretz. The Undergraduate Council is the representative body of Harvard’s more than 6,700 undergraduate students.

The “Student Response to Peretz Fund Act,” passed by a vote of 26-7-4, was presented to the student government by the Harvard Islamic Society, the Black Students Association, Latinas Unidas, the Society of Arab Students and the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

Leaders of these groups met with Harvard President Drew Faust earlier this month, and requested that the administration investigate the decision to honor Peretz. When Faust made clear that she was not willing to investigate the decision, student leaders decided to bring the matter to the Undergraduate Council.

After gaining the support of the UC President and Vice President, the bill passed two council committees before reaching the floor. Students gathered at 7:00pm EST in Emerson 305 to show support for the legislation.

Last month, the Social Studies committee inaugurated a fund in Peretz’s name despite widespread opposition from students, faculty and alumni. Peretz made the now-infamous remarks that “Muslim life is cheap, especially to Muslims” and that Muslims are not worthy of First Amendment protection. Peretz also wrote that "Latin societ[ies]" enjoy "characteristic deficiencies" such as "congenital corruption" and "near-tropical work habits." Regarding African Americans, Peretz wrote that "So many in the black population are afflicted by cultural deficiencies" and that "in the ghetto a lot of mothers don't appreciate the importance of schooling."

(Speaking of which, has that courageous scourge of liberal cant Jon Chait had anything to say yet on Marty Peretz’s hate filled fulminations in his magazine yet? If so, I’ve not noticed.)

And I see Harper’s new Deputy editor was my sister's boyfriend through most of high school. He had a band that wanted the gig of my bar mitzvah, but they were not very good and it went to another band that auditioned with an incredible version of "One More Saturday Night" which remains the ur bar mitzvah dance song, in my opinion.

"Turn on channel six, the President comes on the news,
Says, "I get no satisfaction, that's why I sing the blues."
His wife say "Don't get crazy, Lord, you know just what to do,
Crank up that old Victrola, put on them rockin' shoes."

We paid them a hundred bucks.

Anyway, James got much better and played in some good bands, and then wrote some good books, particularly one about working at Amazon in the beginning, and translated Orianna Fallaci, which, as I recall, was a nightmare, and got hired by CJR and now Harper's. Great guy....


The Twilight Zone: Season 1 [Blu-ray]

The first season of the Zone is an amazing document. It’s a precursor to what we think of as the sixties back before such things were imaginable. And while it was awfully hit or miss, even the misses are really interesting, if often discomfiting. This is 36 episodes complete with Rod Serling's original promos for the following week's episode. Among them, "Time Enough at Last" starring Burgess Meredith as the last survivor of an atomic blast, sadly, like yours truly, dependent on his glasses to read. "The After-Hours" starring Anne Francis as a department store shopper haunted by mannequins; We get little playlets starring Ed Wynn, Everett Sloan and Ida Lupino, Roddy McDowel, Ron Howard and the great Jack Klugman. The transfer here is way superior to the DVD version, which I owned until I got this. (Turns out the kid’s bat mitzvah tutor is a big fan.) And Serling’s pitch to advertisers for the Pilot is really interesting as well.

Here are the extras with the new Bluray release.

· Extremely rare, never-before-released unofficial Twilight Zone pilot, "The Time Element," written by Rod Serling and hosted by Desi Arnaz
· 19 New Audio Commentaries, featuring The Twilight Zone Companion author Marc Scott Zicree, author and film historian Gary Gerani (Fantastic Television), author and music historian Steven C. Smith (A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann), music historians John Morgan and William T. Stromberg, writer/producer David Simkins (Lois & Clark, Dark Angel), writer Mark Fergus (Children of Men, Iron Man), actor William Reynolds and director Ted Post. Interviews with actors Dana Dillaway, Suzanne Lloyd, Beverly Garland and Ron Masak.
· “Tales of Tomorrow” episode "What You Need."
· Vintage audio interview with Director of Photography George T. Clemens.
· 1977 syndication promos for "A Stop at Willoughby" and "The After Hours."
· 18 Radio Dramas
· 34 Isolated Music Scores featuring the legendary Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith and others! Set also includes:
· Audio Commentaries by actors Earl Holliman, Martin Landau, Rod Taylor, Martin Milner, Kevin McCarthy, and CBS executive William Self.
· Vintage Audio Recollections with actors Burgess Meredith and Anne Francis, directors Douglas Heyes and Richard L. Bare, producer Buck Houghton and writer Richard Matheson.
· Rod Serling Audio Lectures from Sherwood Oaks College.

Now here’s Reed.

Reed Richardson writes:

Lose It, Don’t Use It

Here’s a simple test for Altercation readers. See if you can find the flaw in the argument below:

“[A]t the end of the day, [journalists] have to be professional—and that means avoiding actions that create the perception that they are taking sides in political controversies, including elections.

Specifically, mainstream journalists can’t put a political sign in their yard or carry one at demonstrations. They can’t donate money to candidates. They can’t sit on a school board. They can’t participate in political rallies. They can’t lobby, and they can’t become partisan activists.

To me, it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of being a journalist.

NPR is not restricting its staff’s freedom. It’s protecting its credibility as a news organization that tries to give its audience fair, non-partisan coverage.”

This ponderous quote came from NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard’s column last Friday, in which she bemoans the “lousy job” the blogosphere did covering her network’s awkward release of a memo banning all NPR staff from attending the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies next Saturday. I wrote about this last Thursday and was ready to move on, that is, until I read the jarring paragraphs above at the end of her column.

The matter-of-fact way that Shepard juxtaposes an enumerated list of forbidden forms of political expression that all “mainstream journalists” must adhere to next to a declarative statement that these restrictions somehow DO NOT constitute limitations on those same journalists’ freedom is unsettling, to say the least. I would almost give Ms. Shepard the benefit of the doubt and say her summation was inadvertently inartful, since she wedges in between the two aforementioned paragraphs an admission that journalists (at “objective” news organizations presumably) are indeed being asked to make a sacrifice with regard to individual political advocacy in exchange for their livelihood. Nevertheless, even if her language was a mistake or imprecise, the incident is telling and represents a clear distillation of the mainstream media’s myopia when it comes to the ethics of individual political advocacy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m actually a fan of NPR, although I don’t listen as much as I used to since I no longer commute to work by car anymore. And as I said, NPR’s policies, generally, and Ms. Shepard’s comments, specifically, aren’t anything different than the conventional wisdom found at nearly every other major news organization in the country.

But here’s another test. Compare this NPR news report on House Minority Whip Rep. Eric Cantor from a few weeks ago and this Jon Stewart interview with Cantor a week ago. Granted Stewart gets nearly a half-hour of airtime with Cantor and NPR’s Andrea Seabrook gets only four-and-a-half minutes, but even so, the difference between the two is stark.

The NPR story talks about how Cantor and his “Young Gun” Congressional counterparts “know they can’t be the same old GOP,” but spends literally no time trying to figure out where or how their proposed policies would actually differ from said “old GOP.” The group’s so-called “thinker,” Rep. Paul Ryan, has released an economic “Roadmap for America’s Future,” which might be pertinent to explore in the article to test his supposed smarts (especially if it turns out that his plan, if enacted, would achieve none of its claims of fiscal responsibility and instead fulfill two of the longest-running fantasies of Republicans). but it gets no mention at all. Indeed, the reader/voter gets almost nothing of value out of this kind of story other than a little inside-baseball talk about a potential GOP leadership power struggle in the next Congress. Of course, what exactly they would fight about or disagree on, who knows? And, frankly, why should you care?

Turn to Stewart’s interview, however, and you're rewarded with an intellectually serious, if rhetorically free form, discussion that actually digs into the policies that Cantor espouses, policies that would actually impact a voter watching and help him or her make a better decision come Election Day. Of course, in Cantor’s case, you come away from the interview with a much clearer idea that all his talk of limited government and concern for the middle class is just that, talk. What’s more, when Stewart refuses to budge without straight answers on his questions, Cantor’s true ideology finally is revealed and gives the lie to the unsubstantiated spin about his leading a different kind of GOP than was offered up in the NPR article.

Stewart's not bound by fears of keeping hidden his personal opinions or biases, his political leanings, such as they are, are transparent and well-established and his audience can judge the fairness of his interview with Cantor accordingly. Yet, in this very unscientific comparison, I would submit that he's committed a more valuable act of journalism than Seabrook, who I'm sure has never donated money to Cantor (or his Democratic opponent) and, in my personal opinion, is a very good reporter.

Of course, this is not to say that incisive, policy-focused stories that go past empty campaign sloganeering aren’t being done on NPR or in other mainstream media outlets. They are. But they’re too often the exception to the rule in a profession that seems increasingly under institutional retreat from the communities it purports to serve. If journalists are incessantly trained to view all forms of political involvement except voting (and even that act has its notable detractors among the Beltway press), as something foreign, off-limits, tainted even, it follows that, over time, their approach to covering the subject is liable to be accordingly affected. Stand apart from something long enough, in other words, and there’s a good chance you’ll start to see yourself standing above it. Take away someone else’s freedom in pursuit of some pure, unattainable level of objectivity and there’s a danger in losing sight of the real purpose of journalism: telling the truth to better serve our democracy.

Editor's Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Nobody Told Me There'd Be Days Like This...

My new Think Again is called “Collapsing Infrastructure? Who Knew?"

We have an expanded edition of Alter-reviews today.  Here goes:

Library of America: New Releases:

Philip Roth
Novels 1993-1995
Operation Shylock • Sabbath’s Theater

The Library of America is entering one of the great periods of contemporary American literature, offering those of us who still collect “brick and mortar” books a chance to honor (and perhaps even re-read) some of the best American writing anywhere, anytime.  In that category I would unhesitatingly put Philip Roth’s  Operation Shylock, published in 1993, which I would argue, is Roth’s most under-rated book. It is not quite his best book. That would be The Counterlife. But something about the Holy Land inspires this man—remember the wonderful section in Portnoy upon the discovery of Jewish everything—well this is a far more complex and in many respects bitter book. It contains the most searing indictment of Israel I have ever read, put in the mouth of a top Mossad agent. It also contains ten or so beautiful pages about Barney Greengrass. It’s a complicated work, with almost as many questionable riffs as successful ones, a meditation on the meaning of identity as well as the purpose and passions of post-modern Judaism, Israel-diaspora relation and this being Philip Roth, sex, sex and more sex. It’s a great novel in every sense of the word, including its failings.  Also included in the collection is Sabbath’s Theater, (1995) perhaps Roth’s dirtiest novel ever and among his best reviewed. (The publicity material reminds that of the leading literary critics of the English-speaking world, Harold Bloom and Frank Kermode, have proposed Sabbath’s Theater as the finest American novel of the last quarter century.)  I did not love it, much as I admired its audacity. (Perhaps it was too close to home, say the people who know me.)  Anyway, trust me on Shylock.

Saul Bellow
Novels 1970-1982
Mr. Sammler’s Planet • Humboldt’s Gift • The Dean’s December

Nobody considers Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), Humboldt’s Gift (1975), and The Dean’s December (1982) to be Saul Bellow’s best books with the possible exception of me, sometimes.  No question Augie March is more influentl. And though my recollection is a bit hazy, Herzog may be the ideal of the form. (I plan to teach it next semester and find out.) But these three books had Bellow in complete command of talents and writing with a kind of self-confidence to which only he had ever earned.  I much prefer Humbolt and Dean’s December; the latter, together with More Die of Heartbreak, being Bellow’s most underated. But I’ve been writing about Sammler, for my history of liberaism, so here’s some of that.

Bellow found New Leftists to be largely immature and idiotic.    He spoke at San Francisco State College, a hotbed of California radicalism, during that spring.  A student strike was mounting as he came to campus.  After finishing his talk, a creative writing professor, Floyd Salas, rushed into the room and accused him of wanting to “make the university a genteel old maid’s school.”  When the novelist’s response to another questioner didn’t please Salas, he yelled out, “You’re a fucking square.  You’re full of shit.  You’re an old man, Bellow.  You haven’t got any balls.”  Bellow immediately plotted to put this episode into his next novel.  As he told a friend, this novel became “a dramatic essay of some sort, wrung from me by the crazy Sixties.” In some respects, the novel could be seen as the human cost—or result—of liberalism gone out of control; the land brought to you by what Bellow would memorably term in another context, “the Good Intentions Paving Company.”

The central character of said novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) is the seventy year old “child of a second marriage, born when his father was sixty.”  A Polish Jew, he survived the Holocaust but lost his wife in the process, and lives amidst the sharpening shards of civilization that was New York City at the end of the 1960s. The doubling of welfare rolls throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the increased amount of crime, the flocking of middle class Jews away from the city to the suburbs – all of these things weighed heavily on the moral tones of Bellow’s hero.   “New York makes one think about the collapse of civilization, about Sodom and Gomorrah, the end of the world.  The end wouldn’t come as surprise here.  Many people already bank on it,” he muses. (277) 

Sammler is a novel filled with nasty, dyspeptic observations on New York City, particularly the minorities who appear to be taking it over in in the name of the sexual revolution spouting mindless, contentless leftist slogans that mask their own voracious appetites for sex and power, mixed with sloth—as if Norman Podhoretz’s infamous February, 1963 essay, “My Negro Problem—and Our,” had sprung to life as a kind of personal Jewish intellectual nightmare. In a scene that would offer critics and admirers alike ample argument for Bellow’s bravery sour malevolence, Arthur Sammler is followed off his Riverside Drive bus by a black pickpocket who traps him elderly, half-blind protagonist against wall and then, as a kind of warning of unspeakable (but clearly sexualized) violence, he takes out his penis and waves it at Sammler: "a large tan-and-purple uncircumcised thing—a tube, a snake ... suggesting the fleshly mobility of an elephant's trunk."  The novelist Scott Turow writes that he admires Bellow for “his perspicacity in recognizing the lethal admixture of crime and sexuality that was already being adopted as an underground ideal of black masculinity,” but it clearly bespoke a different world than the one of civil rights marches and the now forgotten “dreams” of Martin Luther King.

The novel mocks the counterculture and sexual revolution and those liberal coddlers of the new sensibility of the sixties.  For instance, when Sammler tells his niece that he witnessed a black pickpocket in action, she asks: “Was he a revolutionary?  Would he be for black guerilla warfare?” (17)  Angela, a young cousin of Sammler’s, is a wildly erotic figure, and she recounts her orgiastic adventures for Sammler who is simultaneously excited and disgusted, wondering if America is now at a stage when “all the repulsive things in history are not so repulsive?” (147).  His reflections on sexual liberation turn into a mean-spirited rant: “Millions of civilized people wanted oceanic, boundless, primitive, neckfree nobility, experienced a strange release of galloping impulses, and acquired the peculiar aim of sexual niggerhood for everyone.  Humankind had lost its old patience.” (149)

One of the novel’s climactic scenes comes when Sammler speaks at Columbia University about his life-long interest in progressives of yesteryear, H.G. Wells and George Orwell.  Inspired, undoubtedly by his own experience at San Francisco State College, Sammler finds that “most of the young people seemed to be against him.” (42)  “Hey!  Old Man!” one shouts at him.  “You quoted Orwell before…  You quoted him to say that British radicals were all protected by the Royal Navy?  Did Orwell say that British radicals were protected by the Royal Navy?”  “Yes, I believe he did say that.”  “That’s a lot of shit.”  (42)  The young man goes on, “Orwell was a fink.  He was a sick counterrevolutionary.  It’s good he died when he did.  And what you are saying is shit….  Why do you listen to this effete old shit?  What has he got to tell you?  His balls are dry.  He’s dead.  He can’t come.” (42)  Bellow notices a rupture in the history of the left, separating old from new, and generational conflict that turned into warfare and personal attack.  Ironically, and undoubtedly unknowingly, he mimics Friedan’s critique of the sexual revolution replacing old-fashioned political reform, except that Bellow’s Sammler has surrendered to the enemy. “All this confused sex-excrement-militancy, explosiveness, abusiveness, tooth-showing, Barbary ape howling,” he complains. (43)   The sour old man’s rant is the central voice of the novel, rendered, if not sympathetically, then without apology. “I am getting old,” Sammler observes, but “this liberation into individuality has not been a great success.” (208) 

It is also cause for celebration that LOA has picked as its first ever publication by an economist, John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society and Other Writings 1952–1967.

American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power • The Great Crash, 1929 • The Affluent Society • The New Industrial State. The latter three are among the most influential books of the period and some of the best writing by any economist ever. Whether they are exactly “true” is a matter of much contention. What they are is unarguably important and interesting.

And with H. L. Mencken:

Prejudices: The Complete Series (boxed set), LOA has put together the perfect gift for some graduate or birthday boy or girl who wants to grow up to be a nonfiction writer of any kind.  They cover the period between 1919-1927 and there is nothing else like them, particularly for understanding the culture and politics of the period.

Have you seen Disney’s Oceans? It’s by the French fellow Jacques Perrin, who made Winged Migration, together with somebody named Jacques Cluzaud. The kid and I watched the bluray the other night and the wonderousness of it made me more furious than I have been in a long time about the idiocies of our politics that make it impossible to keep us from destroying the planet.  The rest of the time we spent wondering how in the world (get it) did they get all that stuff captured on camera. Apparently, the crew spent four years crossing the globe, according to the press material, “from the salt-encrusted marine iguanas of the Galápagos Islands to the silky fur seals of South Africa. In other sequences, horseshoe crabs scuttle across the sand, jellyfish pulsate through the deep, and sardines sparkle as the sun catches their scales.” How bad can it be? It comes as a BR/DVD combo, something I don’t understand. Who needs both?

The big news of the week is the John Lennon 70th Birthday-apalooza. (Want to see some post-Beatle John video, go here)

Yoko, who is still not one of my favorite people, even if you restrict the population to the two blocks surrounding my previous apartment, has overseen the release of the following:
Eight Lennon solo albums (though a bunch of them are filled with Yoko). Here’s what’s new(ish): 

A hits compilation in two editions titled Power To The People: The Hits
A 4CD set of themed discs titled Gimme Some Truth
A deluxe 11CD collectors box with the remastered albums, rarities, and non-album singles, titled the John Lennon Signature Box
Double Fantasy, in a newly remixed 'Stripped Down' version in an expanded 2CD and digital edition pairing the new version with Lennon’s original mix, remastered.

All of them have been digitally remastered from Lennon’s original mixes by Yoko Ono and a team of engineers led by Allan Rouse at EMI Music’s Abbey Road Studios in London and by George Marino at Avatar Studios in New York.  All of the remastered titles will be packaged in digisleeves with replicated original album art and booklets with photos and new liner notes by noted British music journalist Paul Du Noyer. Soon to come are:

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)
Imagine (1971)
Some Time In New York City (1972)
Mind Games (1973)
Walls and Bridges (1974)
Rock ‘n’ Roll (1975)  

Milk and Honey (1984)
What to say: Power To The People: The Hits gathers 15 of Lennon’s most popular songs. It’s not nearly enough.

Gimme Some Truth, packaged in a slipcase with rare photos and a new liner notes essays by Anthony DeCurtis, presents 72 of Lennon’s solo recordings on four themed CDs:

‘Roots’ – John’s rock ‘n’ roll roots and influences
‘Working Class Hero’ – John’s socio-political songs
‘Woman’ – John’s love songs
‘Borrowed Time’ – John’s songs about life

It is actually enough. Lennon’s solo work was very uneven and this helps you discover a few gems you probably never noticed before along with just about everything you might want, with generous helpings of his best work, if you don’t mind the fact of the albums being messed with and the songs moved around quite a bit.

The John Lennon Signature Box is a deluxe 11CD and digital collection of the eight remastered albums, a disc of rare and previously unreleased recordings, and an EP of Lennon’s non-album singles. They are housed within a deluxe whie box including a collectible limited edition John Lennon art print and a hardbound book featuring rare photos, artwork, collages, poetry, and new liner notes by DeCurtis. It is well more than enough and it is not cheap but I’m sure it will feel that way for completists.

As for the indvidual albums themselves, if you prefer to go that way. Plastic Ono Band is a masterpiece; I am embarrassed by the number of superlatives I am tempted to employ in its praise. “Imagine” is pretty great too, though it contains the worst rock n roll song of all time. (Though to be fair, “Stairway” is a close contender.)  “Mind Games” is pretty good too. I kinda like Rock n Roll, though Phil Spector pretty much ruined it and John was too wasted while it was being recorded to know even where he was. The John Lennon parts of the “stripped down” version of “Double Fantasy” surprise me with their power these days. But they are going into the Ipod and I will keep the cd on the shelf because of you-know-who. There are some other good songs on the rest of the albums and the sound quality is sharp. Lennon has had quite a lot of repackaging, Yoko juggles the vaults as she mines them—so let your own experience and collection be your guide.

Janeane Garofalo: If You Will

So someone asked me to take a look at Janeane Garofalo’s new standup show. I was not initially eager. I had big crush on Jeanine when I first discovered her in the early days of Larry Sanders, but we went in different directions.  Sometimes I still loved her, but that was most often when she was playing characters I loved, like that press secretary on the final season of TWW. I always felt Jeanine was a good hearted person, and a brave one. But she was also aggressively nuts for a while. One night, when I was co-hosting with her on Air America, substuting for the comedic genius Sam Seder, Jeanine and some woman went on and on about how Neocons had probably plotted and carried out 9/11. I doubt she really meant it, but I had to get up out of the studio and leave during that part, to calm down and resume the show. Anyway, I want to like Jeanine, and she’s always really nice to me when we run into one another, but you know, that 9/11 moment really creeped me out. 

All this is by way of saying that this new act is actually great. There are a few gross moments, a number of which deal with the sainted Natalie Portman, but they come at the end and you can just stop the disc early. The rest of it is Jeanine in a return to her very best form.  It begins with her describing a Starbucks person saying to her: “No offense, but you look like Janeane Garofalo.  What ever happened to her?”  and goes on from there. I don’t know if it qualifies as a comeback. She’s been doing some pretty high-profile work of late.

If You Will is a performance that demonstrates the skill and the confidence of a comic who has been at it for a long time. Garofalo is as seasoned as they come, in spite of the fact that this her first comedy special in over a decade, and the ease with which she delivers her material makes it clear just how natural a comedian she is. This most recent show has her continuing to show her unique sense of humor – a mix of astute observations, self-deprecation, and running commentary – all while offering up real insights about herself.

Reed Richardson writes:

Disenfranchise Players

In a nation whose rhetorical birth literally began with the phrase “We the People,” one would think that even suggesting these selfsame people should trade away, give up, or be stripped of any of their Constitutional rights of political expression would be anathema to our country’s ideals.

Lately, however, there seems to be an inexplicable zeal emanating from some of the “freedom-loving”-est corners of our country for collectively ridding everyone of a few pesky rights as well as selectively stripping the few of some supposedly undeserved ones, all as part of an rather Orwellian campaign to somehow strengthen our democracy through fewer Constitutional protections and less political participation. (I’m leaving it to others to explain in detail how these ideas are often not only stupid and naïve, but almost universally counterproductive to their adherents’ own espoused political goals, let alone democracy.)

Boil these various conservative efforts at political disenfranchisement down to their essence, though, and what you really find is an a priori mistrust in people not government. Indeed, what many of us consider one of democracy’s main features—that, at least in principle, every American has an equal say or vote in how we should be governed—is, to this retrenchist movement, a major bug in our political system. If left unchecked, we the people, in their minds, can’t be trusted to do more than vote for the candidate or party that promises to implement popular policies—Better access to health care! Cheaper ways to pay for college!—to make our lives a little easier, an outcome that sounds exactly like what reasonable people might want out of their government, but that actually threatens the very survival of the entire American political system!

This is a core belief that turns democracy on its head, by essentially positing that a citizen’s franchise as well as his or her other Constitutional rights, in the wrong hands, represents a conflict of interest. That someone might go to the polls to support a person or a plan that might end up benefiting them in some way isn’t a banal, every election occurrence, instead it is akin to outright stealing from the American taxpayer. (Because, as everybody knows, only half of Americans pays taxes and they’re the only ones that deserve to get their money back.) Read through a recent version of this argument, which, just so happens to agitate for disenfranchising public employees (and yes, I realize who the author is, but another “leading light” from that same institution is also trying to make the same, troubling case here), and see if you don’t come away from it hearing a chillingly familiar echo of the same political justifications that, when taken to the extreme, were once used to prop up a century of Jim Crow laws, excuse lynchings, and before that, protect slavery itself.

Of course, once mainstream journalism wholly bought into the notion of objectivity to sell more papers over a century ago, it too has, over time, come to subscribe to eerily similar arguments about the conflict-of-interest dangers brought on by individual political advocacy.

Yesterday morning, NPR demonstrated just how ridiculously far it was willing to stretch this notion of political piety in the service of avoiding any apparent conflict of interest when an internal NPR memo, authored by senior vice president for news, Ellen Weiss, was leaked to Romenesko. In it, Weiss reiterated the network’s general newsroom ethics policies regarding political activity and then specifically forbade staff from attending Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s upcoming “Restore Sanity” and “Keep Fear Alive” satirical rallies in Washington, D.C. at the end of this month.

After a torrent of questions and criticisms in the press, it became clear that few were really buying the thin-on-details explanation originally offered by Weiss, so NPR posted an update last night, which sought to defend the decision against the backdrop of the recent Restoring Honor and One Nation rallies with some curious, no-but-yes logic:

“It's different with the Colbert and Stewart rallies; they are ambiguous. But their rallies will be perceived as political by many, whatever we think. As such, they are off limits except for those covering the events.”

Of course, perceived conflicts of interest do matter to listeners and readers and rightly so, up to a point. But who wouldn’t agree that an NPR producer or editor joining thousands of others at a rally during his or her off-hours poses far less of a risk to NPR’s institutional reputation than if, oh, I don’t know, a well-known NPR personality writes a memoir about racism—a topic that brings with it unquestionable political baggage—and then gets invited to spend nearly a full hour across all four NPR-produced broadcasts promoting that book?

Well, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard might be one, since in her professional opinion—given, finally, in the 36th paragraph of this column on Tuesday—there was no conflict of interest on the part of the network when NPR Morning Edition co-host Michele Norris did exactly that late last month. (Shepard did concede, at least, that Norris received preferential treatment in being booked on all four shows.)

Coincidentally, vice president of news Ellen Weiss also appeared in Shepard’s column, where she reassured readers that “while Michele’s appearances were all of great value to the audience…normally we do a better job of internal communications in order to avoid so much overlap on guest appearances."

Good to know that Ms. Weiss has settled the issue of the value and appropriateness of Norris’s appearances for us, despite what were clearly many complaints and comments from listeners saying otherwise. And where, pray tell, was this self-assuredness on the network’s part when it came to setting policy this week for the Stewart and Colbert rallies? In that case, just the prediction of, rather than any actual listener complaints about bias or conflicts of interest  was enough for them to clamp down on their editorial employees’ rights.

To be fair, NPR isn’t alone in this kind of draconian behavior, it’s symptomatic of the prevailing conventional wisdom among the media. But journalism’s willingness to have, as a default position, an ethical approach that demands sacrifices of political expression first and—maybe—asks questions later (and even then flouts its own supposedly sacred rules) doesn't make it any less palatable than when it's done under the banner of some sham sense of "limited govrernment." Besides, there's a good reason why all of us, and maybe journalists especially, should exercise our right to free expression more often and maybe attend a political rally or two—we might just learn something.

Eric notes: Ellen and I studied for the American history AP exam together. Just saying…

The Mail:

Ray Lodato
Chicago, IL

Allow me a little prognosticating on my way to a point about the media.  I think the big Election Night narrative is going to be gridlock, mostly because the Senate will remain comfortably Democratic. As I see it, the Republicans will pick up Arkansas, Indiana, North Dakota and (sigh) Wisconsin.  The Democrats' best hope for flips are Kentucky and Alaska.  Even if the Dems don't flip any seats, however, the GOP gains will still leave at least 55 Democrats standing in the 112th. Most of the races that we've all been watching are reverting back to electing the candidate from the party that currently controls them.  It's quite possible that California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington will all elect candidates from the present incumbent party. Now, granted, many of the new Republicans who replace other Republicans are certifiably nuts.  I'm not saying that the next Congress is going to be roses and candy--just that there will be more Democrats there than we think. But the media spin is going to be most interesting.  Fox will, of course, see the GOP gains as a repudiation of Obama.  But will the other networks note that only recently, the Republicans were planning on a Senate majority?  Or that Democrats are likely to win several significant statehouses, which could (with the proper redistricting) overturn the Republican House majority in 2012?  No--besides gaming the presidential election (bonus to the first pundit who notes on November 2nd that "that campaign starts tonight"--my guess is Halperin), they will note that the Democrats are defending far more seats in the Senate in 2012 than the Republicans, and that their meager gains put them in the driver's seat to gain the majority in January 2013. I don't know how you put up with it.

Edward Furey
New York

Why don't gays attack Don't Ask Don't Tell on Second Amendment grounds? Although the term "bear arms" has been falsely construed to be equivalent to "packing heat," in fact it refers to serving in the armed forces of the nation. It asserts the right of "the people" to bear arms (serve in the armed forces and Militia), not "straight people." Perhaps in memory of Molly Pitcher at Monmouth in the Revolution, it says "the people", rather than "men" have a right to serve. In fact, the whole Constitution might be considered one of the first "politically correct" gender neutral public documents in American or world history. Where the Declaration says things like "all men are created equal," the Constitution and early amendments carefully avoid gender, referring to either "the people" or "persons" without regard to sex or sexual preference.

Editor's Note: You can write to Eric Alterman here.

Barbarians on the TV Screen

My new Think Again column is called “Just What Exactly Is Fox News?” and it’s here.

The new Nation column is  “Barbarians at the Gate,” and that’s here.

In German, on the future of journalism.

I see Jonathan Chait has a blog post blaming the Palestinians for the failure of Middle East peace talks, here.

You know it’s weird. Chait blogs all day every day at TNR, taking on targets on the left and right.  He’s known for fighting dirty, of course. When he didn’t like something I said, he published my salary at one of my jobs, but he wasn’t known for his reticence, at least until now.  But do a search like this one: “Peretz, Islam” under Google Blog and you’ll get nearly 25,000 hits. Take out the word “blog” and do a straight Google search and you’ll get over 600,000 hits. And yet, believe it or not, not one of them will contain a post by the fearless Mr. Chait taking a position on whether or not the owner/editor-in-chief of The New Republic is guilty of bigotry against Arabs and Moslems (as well as blacks and Latinos). Suddenly the cat has got his proverbial tongue. Of course, it’s not as if everyone at TNR has a responsibility to denounce or defend the boss. (Though kudos to John Judis for having done so in the past.) But Chait has adopted the public position as the scourge of all hypocrisy, particularly liberal hypocrisy. And yet somehow a person who occupies one of the most important places in the liberal discourse, Marty Peretz, somehow escapes his attention despite garnering as I said,  more than half a million Google hits for his curious views about Islam.  I  have no idea how much Chait is paid to blog at TNR and I don’t really care to find out, except to note that from what I do know about the salaries over there, it is probably not enough to buy the silence of someone who poses as a moral tutor to the rest of us…

I went to see Hitchens debate Tariq Ramadan at the 92 Street Y the other night. It was a wonderfully entertaining night. Christopher, I was pleased to see, was in splendid form and Ramadan was a worthy opponent, who made a great deal of sense, given the difficult position in which he was placed. (I noticed Christopher went rather easy on Judaism and Israel in this crowd, though he is a fan of neither. Anyway, here is Marc Tracy’s report, which would differ from mine, but he did it and I didn’t.

Now here’s Reed:

Reed Richardson writes:

Editorial Boardom

It is a sad commentary on our democracy when a number of this fall’s political candidates have decided that their best chance for a successful campaign involves not doing much traditional campaigning at all. Participating in debates and taking questions from campaign reporters is just so 1998 it seems, while massive self-funded expenditures and TV-ad saturation, however, are now as hot as Lady Gaga. In fact, one candidate seems to be intentionally avoiding any kind of public interaction with voters at all, save for a single bizarre TV ad that, if this politics things doesn’t work out (and polls strongly suggest it won’t), shows she might have a promising career as an artist making ponderous and strangely surreal video installations. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are replacing anachronistic outreach tools like yard signs and direct mail and this week it became clear that there’s one other box on the traditional campaign checklist that candidates are now more and more likely to leave unchecked: courting newspaper editorial boards for political endorsement.

Of course, Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry’s very public refusal to seek newspaper editorial board endorsements earlier this week isn’t without precedent this year. But his brazen dismissal of this campaign season staple did seem to startle his jilted partners and occasioned some serious whining among the editorial board crowd about how corrosive this stance was toward the citizens of Texas and how much of a threat it represented to democracy in general. Well, forgive me but I find this outrage a little too self-serving and disingenuous. After all, the Tyler [Texas] Morning Telegraph, which ran a front-page editorial in last Sunday’s paper blasting Perry’s refusal to stop by their conference room, didn’t see fit to exercise the same level of outrage and concern about our democracy when their Governor hinted at a Tea Party rally last year that Texas might well want to secede from the union because of President Obama’s policies.

Indeed, the tetchiness of the newspaper industry’s response to Perry is telling, it intimates at what most of us already know—that newspaper political endorsements make no sense, serve no real purpose and are long overdue to disappear.

In fact, the little research that exists about the influence that newspaper endorsements have on elections suggests their impact is negligible. This 2007 Pew survey of political endorsements found that a local newspaper’s endorsement had a net influence rating of zero on voters, the same result as found in a similar Pew survey from 2004. Indeed, most of the political endorsers tested in the Pew surveys actually had a deleterious effect on their preferred candidate, turning off more people than they attracted. (Even Oprah, who just broke even in overall influence in 2007, couldn’t do better than newspapers.) In fact, your minister, priest or rabbi’s political clout rated the highest among the choices given, with a net positive rating of 6%, although the survey seems to overlook the inconvenient fact that federal law prohibits tax-exempt churches and other places of worship from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.

More scientific studies of newspaper endorsements are a tiny bit more generous, however. This 2004 MIT study, for example, found that:

“[Newspaper] endorsements typically increase the vote share of the endorsed candidate by about 1 to 5 percentage points…But studies that exploit changes in endorsements and votes for specific politicians over time tend to find much smaller benefits, about a 1 to 2 percentage point gain.”

And it’s worth pointing out that, even if true, the modest ballot-box benefit a candidate might gain from a newspaper’s political endorsement this November is probably still less important than other, completely random election-day factors, such as a candidate’s being listed first on the ballot, which this Univ. of Vermont study pegged at being worth around an extra three-and-a-half percentage points during the past two midterm elections.

So why bother? Well, as this American Journalism Review article from 2004 makes clear, political endorsements are like “vestigial remains of those tendentious days of journalism, an era typified even in its waning years by outrageous displays of partisanship that unabashedly sluiced from the editorial pages into all parts of the paper.” (Indeed, the article points out that as recently as 1936, the arch-conservative and stridently anti-FDR Chicago Tribune had that newspaper’s switchboard operators answering the telephone just days before the election with the phrase, “'Hello, Chicago Tribune, only 10 days left to save the American way of life.'" )

Certainly, the editorial board members cited in the AJR article don’t offer up much of a compelling and coherent explanation for continuing the practice. Here was the then-editorial page editor of the San Antonio Express-News, Lynnell Burkett, giving her newspaper’s reasoning:

“‘We're not trying to tell you how to vote,’ says Burkett, ‘but we're giving you our opinion based on the research we've been able to do.’

“We can use the endorsement process, Burkett says, "to position ourselves in terms of credibility, because anybody can say anything, frankly, on the Internet and…on television and talk radio.... If we present ourselves as the source of opinion with no ax to grind, as those who spend our time researching and writing about issues, it seems we can use this as a strategic advantage."

The logic here is quite puzzling, as it uses one of the supposedly sacred tenets of journalism, objectivity—i.e., having “no ax to grind”—to justify a wholly subjective action—endorsing one political candidate versus another. It’s patronizing and elitist as well, since, as NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen points out in the same piece, there’s no such thing as an expert voter in a democracy. Plus, if you strongly suggest that your motives for endorsing in the first place are driven by less than pure, democratic reasons—what’s does “strategic advantage” even mean in this instance?—one has to wonder how far this adherence to credibility burnishing and brand-building goes. Does that explain, for example, why newspapers back 80% of incumbents today versus 56% of them 50 years ago, as the MIT study found? Has the endorsement process now boiled down to ‘Who’s got the best shot to win and make us look smart?’

In addition to these unseemly questions about motives, another underlying implication here is that readers who dine solely on a newspaper’s straight campaign reporting might be starved for the proper political sustenance when it comes to making an informed choice on election day. What’s more, it’s well documented that for much of the public, these political endorsements have the effect of painting an entire newspaper with the same partisan brush. But wait, an editorial page editor might say, that’s an unfair characterization because we take steps to ensure that our editorial board opinions don’t cross over and influence the news side—look instead at our actual reportage for proof that we can both have opinions on the editorial page and keep them out of our straight news coverage.

That's a fair and imminently reasonable argument. Sadly, mastheads don’t seem to practice this same common-sense approach when it comes to their own employees, as that lower, appearing-biased-is-biased standard is the exact same reasoning that newspapers like the New York Times use to justify their draconian ethics guidelines. Why can’t a newspaper’s staff also be judged on the merits of their individual work product rather than be subject to a broad brush policy that prohibits almost all individual political expression? After all, they may perfectly capable of separating their personal political beliefs from their work. Indeed, it’s ironic that a paper like the Times, which invests so much importance in its thousands of editorial employees never displaying a political sign in their front yard (or Facebook wall), goes and sticks a giant political billboard on its editorial page at the end of every election season. And who pays the price for this glaring case of actual bias appearing in the newspaper, those same reporters and editors whose journalism careers would be seriously jeopardized if they dared to even wear a campaign button.

At the end of the AJR article, Project for Excellence in Journalism director Tom Rosenstiel, said the various reasons given for continuing political endorsements all boil down to “good intentions.”

“‘Done well,’ [Rosenstiel] says, ‘editorial endorsements get us very close to what journalism is all about, which is citizen debate. Done poorly, of course, it's just a big institution muscling, pushing its weight around.’”

However, a journalism profession struggling to earn back the confidence of a skeptical public increasingly resembles the latter in an era where the newshole is larger, wider and deeper than ever before. Yes, the public should welcome any attempt to make sense of this often overwhelming deluge of information, but a hybrid, two-headed newspaper model, where obsessively neutral, he-said, she-said news reporting is hermetically sealed off from editorial opinion and analysis is simply no longer viewed as authentic or trustworthy. As yet another example of this aging journalism architecture, political endorsements, despite any good intentions by the editorial boards that make them, simply lead our democracy down the wrong road.

The mail

Clay Landon
Hermosa Beach
I was bitterly resentful of Christopher Hitchens because of his move to the right politically and his lambasting of the Dalai Lama. When I say bitterly resentful, I mean that I held a grudge against the man, literally wishing for his slow, painful death.  I write to tell you how ugly and stupid I feel for those wishes. I loved your column on Hitchens and my prayers go out to him and his family. I like these feelings that I have for Hitchens and they all came from your column. So thanks for that, Eric.

Editor's Note: You can write to Eric Alterman here.

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